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)

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Criminal Justice Reform in the Fentanyl Era: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back"

Fentanylgraphic_map_0The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Drug Policy Alliance. Here is part of its executive summary:

The U.S. is in the throes of a deadly overdose crisis that claimed almost 70,000 lives in 2018. Of those, around 30,000 deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.  Policymakers have responded to the overdose crisis with a rhetorical emphasis on “treatment instead of incarceration,” leading journalists to comment that we are in the midst of a “gentler war on drugs.”  However, despite a change in discourse, draconian policies have persisted and in many cases been expanded.  This is exemplified by many lawmakers’ reaction to fentanyl and other analog drugs, both on the state and federal level.

Since 2011, 45 states have proposed legislation to increase penalties for fentanyl while 39 states and Washington DC have passed or enacted such legislation.  At this moment, some members of Congress are working to codify harsher penalties by placing fentanyl analogs permanently into Schedule 1 in both the Senate and the House with proposed legislation like the Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues Act of 2019 (SOFA) and the FIGHT Act.  In his annual State of the State 2020 address this month, New York’s Governor Cuomo proposed banning fentanyl analogs and expanding access to medication assisted treatment in the very same sentence.

Legislators have dusted off the drug war playbook and proposed a variety of new punitive measures including new mandatory minimum sentences, homicide charges, involuntary commitment, expanded powers for prosecutors and more.  These efforts repeat the mistakes that epitomize the failed war on drugs, while undermining efforts to reform our criminal justice system and pursue a public health approach to drug use.  Indeed, such proposals risk compounding the overdose crisis.

Punitive approaches to fentanyl are particularly disturbing because they run counter to recent policy shifts that have been largely bipartisan in nature. One recent policy shift is a growing promotion of public health approaches to drug use.  There is mounting support for a number of policies and interventions -- such as increasing access to voluntary, medication-assisted treatment and naloxoneb -- as more effective responses to the current overdose crisis than the revolving door of jail or prison.  Another notable policy shift is the long-overdue recognition that decades of harsh and racially-biased drug enforcement have had devastating consequences on individuals and communities, while wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.  A recent analysis of federal fentanyl sentencing revealed that 75% of all individuals sentenced for fentanyl trafficking were people of color, suggesting that fentanyl enforcement already mirrors other disparate drug enforcement.

The criminal justice reform movement has made tremendous progress on reducing drug sentences at the local, state and federal levels.  The trend toward tougher penalties for fentanyl presents a threat to the reform movement, undercutting initiatives to reduce mass criminalization and incarceration.  To date, none of the states that enacted harsher penalties for fentanyl, nor the federal government, have demonstrated a reduction in fentanyl-involved deaths because of these new laws.

In this context, the criminal justice reform movement must do more to combat punitive proposals, putting as much energy into challenging the exceptionalism around fentanyl as other efforts to reduce sentences.  This paper aims to shine a light on the danger that harsh fentanyl penalties present to the criminal justice reform movement and efforts to end the war on drugs.

January 23, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

"Why Is the Chief Justice of Ohio's Supreme Court Lobbying Against Sentencing Reforms?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this Reason commentary from a few weeks ago that I just came across today. Here are excerpts from a piece worth reading in full:

Ohio lawmakers trying to pass sentencing reforms have faced opposition this year from the usual suspects, such as lobbyists for prosecutors and law enforcement. But they've also run into vocal criticism from an unexpected source: Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.

It is unusual — and it may damage the objectivity and independence of the court system — for sitting Supreme Court justices to lobby for or against legislation.  But that hasn't stopped O'Connor from jumping into the middle of the legislature's deliberations over a pair of criminal justice reform proposals. In newspaper op-eds, public appearances, and letters to members of the state Senate, O'Connor, who happens to be a former prosecutor and lobbyist, has repeatedly argued against a bill that would downgrade some felony drug possession charges to misdemeanor offenses.

O'Connor, of course, has a First Amendment right to speak about legislation and to criticize the legislative process if she wants.  But she seems to recognize the unusual nature of her advocacy. "You may think it unprecedented to receive a letter from me, as Chief Justice, that addresses my concerns about [Senate Bill 3]," O'Connor wrote in a December 3 missive to state legislators, a copy of which was obtained by Reason.  But, she adds, it is "my duty" to speak out about issues that "affect the administration of criminal justice and the operation of Ohio's courts."...

Sen. John Eklund (R–Munson), the sponsor of the bill in question and one of the recipients of O'Connor's letter, agrees that it's unusual to get a letter from a sitting Supreme Court justice advocating against a specific piece of legislation. Eklund's bill is one of two major criminal justice reform measures that have been jockeying for legislators' support in Columbus this year. He says says it's rooted in the idea that people deserve a chance to prove they can learn from past mistakes. "We want people to get better and move on to lead productive lives, while also ensuring that traffickers are arrested and stay behind bars," he explains....

At the same time that she's been lobbying against Senate Bill 3, O'Connor has been pushing the legislature to approve the other criminal justice bill it was considering this year: House Bill 1.  In her December 3 letter, O'Connor highlights the House bill's support from law enforcement groups — she specifically name-checks the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association — as a reason to prefer it to the Senate proposal.

The House bill also seeks to shunt some drug offenders into treatment programs, but it does not reclassify some drug felonies as misdemeanors. O'Connor and others claim that the cudgel of a felony charge is necessary to get offenders into treatment. "Downgrading the underlying offenses will only reduce one of these incentives and the likelihood of a lasting recovery," the chief justice wrote in a September 19 letter to Eklund.

There's no law or rule that says judges can't lobby for legislation. Indeed, Jonas Anderson, a professor of law at American University who has written about judicial ethics and lobbying, points out that there are times when judicial input can offer important information to legislators, particularly when they can provide technical information about the workings or needs of the justice system.

But judges should be careful about crossing the line into pushing or opposing specific policies, he adds. "We think of the judicial system as a place where you can get a decision about a dispute that's free from political considerations," says Anderson.

In lobbying against Senate Bill 3, O'Connor has indeed made some technical arguments about how the court system would operate under the new sentencing guidelines proposed by the law.  But her objections are overwhelmingly directed at the underlying policy....

After a career defined by criss-crossing the dividing lines between branches of government — and by advocating for tougher criminal justice legislation both from inside the executive branch and as an outside lobbyist — O'Connor apparently thinks it appropriate to tell state lawmakers what to do.  Indeed, this is not the first time she's tried to stamp out sentencing reforms.  In 2018, she penned op-eds telling voters to oppose a ballot measure that would have reduced drug possession penalties in order to keep low-level nonviolent offenders out of the prison system.  Passage of the measure would be "catastrophic" for Ohio, she wrote.  Not exactly the sort of dispassionate analysis one would hope to read from the head of the state's highest court.  Voters listened, and they defeated that proposal at the ballot box last year....

By using her authority as the state's top jurist to parrot talking points from prosecutors and law enforcement lobbyists, O'Connor may yet succeed in stomping criminal justice reform efforts, but she also undermines her own credibility and that of the state's court system.  The legitimacy of the judiciary survives largely because the system is perceived to be separate from the political machinations that go on within a legislature.  O'Connor's willingness to use her judicial position to help shape policy should make Ohioans wonder about her ability to be an objective arbiter.  "Judges shouldn't be muzzled," says Anderson, "but lobbying as a judge — not as an individual, but as a judge — risks the independence and objectivity of the judicial branch."

January 7, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 06, 2020

"Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting looking new book authored by Peter Andreas.  Here is the book's description from the publisher's website: 

There is growing alarm over how drugs empower terrorists, insurgents, militias, and gangs.  But by looking back not just years and decades but centuries, Peter Andreas reveals that the drugs-conflict nexus is actually an old story, and that powerful states have been its biggest beneficiaries.

In his path-breaking Killer High, Andreas shows how six psychoactive drugs-ranging from old to relatively new, mild to potent, licit to illicit, natural to synthetic-have proven to be particularly important war ingredients.  This sweeping history tells the story of war from antiquity to the modern age through the lens of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine.  Beer and wine drenched ancient and medieval battlefields, and the distilling revolution lubricated the conquest and ethnic cleansing of the New World.  Tobacco became globalized through soldiering, with soldiers hooked on smoking and governments hooked on taxing it.  Caffeine and opium fueled imperial expansion and warfare.  The commercialization of amphetamines in the twentieth century energized soldiers to fight harder, longer, and faster, while cocaine stimulated an increasingly militarized drug war that produced casualty numbers surpassing most civil wars.

As Andreas demonstrates, armed conflict has become progressively more drugged with the introduction, mass production, and global spread of mind-altering substances.  As a result, we cannot understand the history of war without including drugs, and we similarly cannot understand the history of drugs without including war.  From ancient brews and battles to meth and modern warfare, drugs and war have grown up together and become addicted to each other.

January 6, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 20, 2019

"Punishing Pill Mill Doctors: Sentencing Disparities in the Opioid Epidemic"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Adam Gershowitz just posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Consider two pill mill doctors who flooded the streets with oxycodone and other dangerous opioids.  The evidence against both doctors was overwhelming.  They each sold millions of opioid pills.  Both doctors charged addicted patients hundreds of dollars in cash for office visits that involved no physical examinations and no diagnostic tests.  Instead, the doctors simply handed the patients opioids in exchange for cash.  To maximize their income, both doctors conspired with street dealers to import fake patients — many of them homeless — so that the doctors could write even more prescriptions.  Both doctors made millions of dollars profiting off the misery of people addicted to opioids.  Even though juries convicted both doctors of similar criminal charges, they received drastically different sentences.  The first doctor was sentenced to 5 years, while the second doctor received a 35-year-sentence.

This article reviews 25 of the worst opioid pill mill doctors to be sentenced in the last five years, and it details drastic sentencing disparities in the federal system.  In more than half the cases, judges departed well below the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to impose sentences that were decades less than would be expected.

The sentencing variations in pill mill cases are not driven by traditional explanations such as the trial penalty or the defendant’s criminal history.  Instead, the sentencing variations are explained primarily by the age of the doctors.  Many pill mill doctors are in their 60s and 70s, and judges appear to be tailoring their sentencing decisions to ensure that older doctors will not spend the rest of their lives in prison.  Additionally, prosecutors face an uphill battle in proving the drug quantity against white-collar doctors (rather than street dealers) who can claim that some of their prescriptions were legitimate.  This article documents the difficulty of equitably punishing pill mill doctors, as well as the significance of age in sentencing older, white-collar offenders.

December 20, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Drug Policy Alliance releases big new report titled "Rethinking the 'Drug Dealer'"

As detailed in this press release, yesterday "the Drug Policy Alliance released a new report making the case for rethinking the way the United States responds to the 'drug dealer'."  Here is more from the press release that serves as a kind of summary of the full report:

The report demonstrates how the United States’ punitive approach to people who sell or distribute drugs — rooted in stigma, ignorance and fear, rather than evidence — has done nothing to reduce the harms of drug use or improve public safety, while instead creating new problems and compounding those that already exist....

“With a record 70,000 deaths from accidental overdose in 2017, people are understandably searching for solutions, but applying harsh penalties to drug sellers scapegoats people who are more often than not drug users as well, while ignoring the larger issue,” said Lindsay LaSalle, Managing Director of Public Health Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.  “Instead, we should be using the same resources and determination to reduce the actual harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, repair the criminal legal system’s discriminatory response to the drug trade, and increase access to evidence-based treatment and support services that benefit health, public safety and economic opportunity in the long term.”

Among the flaws in the current system, the report highlights the following:

  • Current laws were created on the premise that they would reduce overall supply, and in turn, consumption. In reality, the opposite has occurred. We have increased the number of people incarcerated for selling or distribution offenses by 3000% — from 15,000 in 1980 to 450,000 today — and drugs are more readily available, at significantly lower prices.
  • Nearly half of people who have reported selling drugs also meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, supporting the idea that they are selling drugs, to an extent, to support their own dependency.
  • Laws against drug selling are so broadly written that people arrested with drugs for personal use can get charged as “dealers,” even if they were not involved in selling at all.
  • While the criminal legal system purports to focus on high-level sellers, the data show that supply-side criminalization disproportionately impacts the lowest-level people on the supply chain.
  • The current system has a discriminatory impact on communities of color, despite the fact that data suggest white people are slightly more likely than Black or Latinx people to report having sold drugs....

Accordingly, DPA has provided a set of tailored recommendations based on three broad principles:

  • First, to the maximum extent possible, society should deal with drug involvement outside the destructive apparatus of criminalization — and to the extent that the criminal justice system continues to focus on drug selling and distribution, it must do so with a commitment to proportionality and due process.
  • Second, we should focus on reducing the harms of drug distribution (for example, reducing drug market-related violence), rather than attempting to eliminate drug market activity.
  • Third, we must take seriously the criminal justice system’s discriminatory response to the drug trade and work toward reforms that both repair the harm already done while preventing further harm to communities of color and poor communities.  With the report public, DPA aims to expand the current public dialogue around drug reform, to focus on who the people now labeled “drug dealers” in the United States really are and how we, as a society, can respond to them in ways that will keep people and communities safer and healthier.

The full 76-page report can be accessed at this link and a two-page executive summary is available here.

December 18, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Opioids, Addiction Treatment, and the Long Tail of Eugenics"

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

Our attitude, treatment, and punishment of opioid addiction partly results from the long, intertwined history of eugenics and incarceration.  There is a thread of eugenics-based philosophy undergirding our widespread imprisonment of the poor, disabled, and dependent.  The current approach to opioid addiction in the criminal justice and sentencing worlds reflects this bias, hindering our ability to best treat the opioid crisis.  Our 21st century tactics to combat the opioid addiction crisis unwittingly track the methods used to address the widespread use of opioids in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with equally troubling results.  Indeed, addiction to pharmaceutical opiates is no recent problem; historically, iatrogenic drug use has been far more extensive than illicit drug use.  Old errors are being re-enacted as we attempt to solve the problems of opioid-addicted offenders during sentencing, inside correctional facilities, and on release.  Accordingly, before we craft workable policies to combat the opioid crisis, we must fully explore and understand the history of iatrogenic opioid addiction, to avoid making the same mistakes.

December 18, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Eighth Circuit panel explains the reach of FIRST STEP Act retroactivity eligibility

A helpful readers made sure I did not miss the helpful opinion from an Eighth Circuit panel today in US v. McDonald, No. 19-1221 (8th Cir. Dec. 11, 2019) (available here) concerning the retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act.  I have not consistently kept up with this part of FIRST STEP jurisprudence, but I am consistently pleased when a circuit opinion seeks to bring simple clarity to a complicated issue.  So, here are a few paragraphs from ole McDonald:   

McDonald’s Count 39 conviction is a “covered offense” under § 404 of the First Step Act because (1) it is a violation of a federal statute; (2) the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act; and (3) it was committed before August 3, 2010.  Consequently, McDonald is eligible for a sentence reduction on Count 39: the district court may “impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act . . . were in effect at the time of the covered offense was committed.”  First Step Act § 404(b). 

It is true, as the district court noted, that McDonald’s base offense level under the Sentencing Guidelines was based on more than 150 kilograms of powder cocaine, not cocaine base.  But this Guidelines calculation does not change the fact that he was convicted on Count 39 for distributing cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii) (1996). The First Step Act applies to offenses, not conduct, see First Step Act § 404(a), and it is McDonald’s statute of conviction that determines his eligibility for relief, see, e.g., United States v. Beamus, No. 19-5533, 2019 WL 6207955, at *3 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2019); United States v. Wirsing, No. 19-6381, 2019 WL 6139017, at *9 (4th Cir. Nov. 20, 2019).

The government does not argue that McDonald did not commit a “covered offense.”  Instead, it contends the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying McDonald’s motion because it had already reduced his sentence in 2016.  But the fact that McDonald received a sentence reduction based on a retroactive Guidelines Amendment does not affect his eligibility for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.  A court considering a motion for a reduced sentence under § 404 of the First Step Act proceeds in two steps.  First, the court must decide whether the defendant is eligible for relief under § 404. Second, if the defendant is eligible, the court must decide, in its discretion, whether to grant a reduction.  That the court might properly deny relief at the discretionary second step does not remedy any error in determining ineligibility at the first step....

Because McDonald is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, we remand for the district court to exercise its discretion whether to grant relief.

December 11, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 08, 2019

"From Warfare to Welfare: Reconceptualizing Drug Sentencing During the Opioid Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Jelani Jefferson Exum now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The War on Drugs officially began in 1971 when President Nixon decried drug abuse as “public enemy number one.”  The goal of the war rhetoric was clear — to cast drug abuse and the drug offender as dangerous adversaries of the law-abiding public, requiring military-like tactics to defeat.  Criminal sentencing would come to be the main weapon used in this pressing combat.  In continuation of the war efforts, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed under President Reagan, establishing a weight-based, and highly punitive, mandatory minimum sentencing approach to drug offenses that has persisted in some form for the last thirty years.  When the Act passed, crack cocaine was touted as the greatest drug threat, and crack cocaine offenders — the vast majority of whom were Black — were subjected to the harshest mandatory minimum penalties.  Like any war, the consequences of the War on Drugs has had widespread casualties, including (but not limited to) the devastation of many communities, families, and individuals; the increase in racial disparities in punishment; and fiscal catastrophe in penal systems across the country.  What the War on Drugs has not done is eradicate drug abuse in the United States.  And now, nearly fifty years after drugs became our national enemy, we have a new face of drug crime — the opioid addict.

The current Administration has recognized that “[d]rug addiction and opioid abuse are ravaging America.”  However, rather than ramping up punishment for opioid offenders through lengthier drug sentencing, in October 2017 the opioid crisis officially became a Public Health Emergency under federal law.  And while it is largely understood that this was mostly a symbolic statement with little practical effect, the rhetoric is markedly different than it was during the purported crack epidemic of the 1980s. Rather than drug offenders being the enemy, the opioid addict has been cast as the American Everyman, and the opioid addiction problem has become known as the “crisis next door” that “can affect any American, from all-state football captains to stay-at-home mothers.”

Now that the drug emergency is portrayed as destroying wholesome American communities — as opposed to poor, crime-ridden communities of color — the tone has changed from punishment toward treatment and rehabilitation.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has described opioid misuse and addiction as “a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”  While we are in the midst of this shift in messaging about drug addiction, it is an ideal time for drug sentencing as a whole to be reconceptualized from use as a weapon — designed to destroy — to having a public welfare agenda.  To do this it requires recasting potential drug offenders as community members, rather than enemies.  This change in perspective and approach also necessitates understanding drug crime as undeterred by incarceration.  The tasks must be to decide on a goal of drug sentencing, and to develop multifaceted approaches to address and eradicate the underlying sources of the drug problem.  When this is done, we may find that more appropriate purposes of punishment — rehabilitation and retribution — compel us to think beyond incarceration, and certainly mandatory minimum sentencing laws, as the appropriate punishment type at all.

December 8, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

"Prosecuting Opioid Use, Punishing Rurality"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Valena Elizabeth Beety no available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The opioid crisis spotlights rural communities, and accompanying that bright light are long-standing, traditional biased tropes about backwards and backwoods White Appalachians. These stereotypes conflate rurality with substance use disorder as the next progression in dehumanizing stereotypes.  Widespread attention to our nation’s use disorder crisis, however, also brings an opportunity to recognize these fallacious stereotypes and to look more closely at the criminal legal systems in rural communities.  In this Article, I use drug-induced homicide — what has become a popular prosecutorial charge in response to the opioid crisis — as a prism to identify and critique the failings in rural criminal courts more broadly.  This Article includes modest recommendations that acknowledge and respond to these inadequacies while attempting to preserve people’s constitutional rights and decrease opiate-related overdoses.

November 21, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Might we reasonably expect marijuana reform or other criminal justice issues to be engaged in tonight's Dem debate?

There is another Democratic Primary Debate slated for tonight, taking place in Atlanta, and I suspect one would get quite drunk if drinking every time someone says quid pro quo as suggested by Rolling Stone.  What I am not sure of is whether someone would be very drunk or very sober if the drinking word was marijuana.  As the title of this post suggests, there are reasons to think this debate might engage the issues given that former VP Joe Biden was talking about gateway drugs recently, and the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives today moved forward the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act.   

Of course, you can keep up with marijuana reform action at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, and here are some highlights from recent posts over there that should be especially relevant to folks discussing the modern policies and politics of reform:

November 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Latest Failure in the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new New York Times commentary authored by Brandon D.L. Marshall and Abdullah Shihipar.  Here are excerpts:

[D]espite the recognition of drug use as a public health issue, some states have also introduced “drug-induced homicide” laws that put the responsibility of an overdose at the feet of the drug suppliers. In Rhode Island, for example, under “Kristen’s Law” a person who supplies drugs to someone who overdoses can be punished with a life sentence.

These laws have been enacted in at least 25 states, while a few more are considering adopting them. They represent a return to the outdated “war on drugs” approach, which decades of research has shown to be unsuccessful. It instead increases risks for those who use drugs, particularly minority populations and people of color....

People who supply drugs are often friends or family members of those who overdose and often use drugs themselves. In a national survey, more than two in five people who reported having sold drugs also said they meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.  Another analysis of drug-induced homicide news stories, conducted by the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University, found that 50 percent of people who were charged under drug-induced homicide laws were either friends, caretakers, partners or family members.  Drug transactions are not as simple as buyer and seller....

Proponents say that because these laws have good Samaritan provisions — which protect from criminal consequence those who seek emergency medical assistance at the scene of a suspected drug overdose — they will not discourage people from calling 911 to report an overdose.  However, while studies have shown that knowledge of good Samaritan protections is associated with a willingness to call 911 in the event of an overdose, people are still afraid to call because of fear they will be charged....

What’s more, putting drug users in jail will only worsen the overdose crisis.  People who have recently been released from prison are at much greater risk of overdosing than the public — up to 40 times greater in some cases.  Most jails and prisons across the country do not have medications to treat opioid addiction, which means that when people are released they are especially vulnerable to fatal overdoses.

The war on drugs has hit communities of color the hardest, with Black and Latinx people much more likely to be arrested for simple possession and to receive harsher sentences than whites, despite rates of drug use being similar across all communities.  Even with promises from the authorities to pursue a public health approach, racial disparities in drug-related arrests persist.  A study conducted in Washington State found that among people who had received treatment for substance abuse disorder, black clients were more likely to have been arrested on substance-related charges compared to white clients.  The rate of Fentanyl-related overdose deaths has risen most sharply for black and Latinx people, so we can only expect that drug-induced homicide legislation will disproportionately and negatively affect them.

There has been progress: The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently struck down a drug-induced homicide conviction.  The court argued that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence that Jesse Carrillo knew that the heroin he gave to a fellow student, Eric Sinacori, would cause a deadly overdose.  Similar arguments can be made for other cases.  Fentanyl has so contaminated the drug supply that it is hard to determine how much control individual sellers have on quality and content.  Promoting the use of tools like fentanyl test strips, which can allow people to check their drugs before selling or using drugs, should be promoted.  Indeed, when we recently collaborated with other researchers on a study of Rhode Islanders at risk of fentanyl overdose, we found that those with a history of drug dealing were among the most likely to use fentanyl test strips.

Punitive measures threaten the progress we have made on the overdose crisis.  They push people into the shadows, increase overdose risk and contribute to racial disparities.  If the authorities are serious about treating drug use as a public health issue, then they have to let go of this longstanding fixation on punishment.

November 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Tales of extreme state drug mandatory minimums (and non-retroactive reforms) from Florida

The Miami Herald has this lengthy article discussing an array of extreme sentences resulting from Florida's (now somewhat reformed) mandatory minimum drug laws.  The piece is headlined "Hundreds languish in Florida prisons under outdated mandatory minimum drug sentences, " and I recommend it in full.  Here is a taste:

It’s not enough that Jomari DeLeon calls every day, asking her 8-year-old daughter about school and reminding her that “mommy misses you.” The child still asks when she’s coming home, believing her mom’s been gone all these years because of a stint in the military. That would explain the barbed wire surrounding the compound that she visits every month.

In reality, DeLeon is four hours away in this privately run women’s prison in the Panhandle town of Quincy, serving the third year of a 15-year sentence. If she had committed her drug crime in 2016, rather than eight years ago, she would be free by now. Up to 1,000 Florida inmates find themselves in the same legal purgatory....

[DeLeon was involved in two small non-violent drug] deals — a grand total of 48 pills for $225.... Under Florida law in 2013, the possession or sale of about 22 hydrocodone pills — less than one prescription’s worth — would trigger a trafficking sentence of 15 years...

Similar drug cases were playing out across the state. In Orange County in 2009, a man named William Forrester was handed a 15-year sentence for oxycodone trafficking after he was caught falsifying prescriptions to support his habit....

In 2010, a woman named Nancy Ortiz asked an Osceola judge that rehabilitation be included in her sentence to ease her addiction to crack. She had sold two bottles of hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop. Instead, the judge sentenced her to 25 years. “I take no pleasure in imposing this sentence,” the judge told Ortiz. “But I don’t have any discretion in the matter.”

For years, people caught with prescription painkillers in Florida received tougher penalties than those with the same weight in street drugs. In some cases, they received five times the sentence because that’s what the law required....

[P]ublic defenders from around the state went to Tallahassee to lobby the Legislature to change the law .. [and] even the state prosecutors’ association — those pursuing convictions for drug crimes — joined the public defenders in pursuit of lighter sentences for those selling prescription pills. MO<Finally, lawmakers listened. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor, sponsored a bill in 2014 that increased the number of hydrocodone or oxycodone pills needed to trigger the lengthy mandatory sentences. To get 15 years for hydrocodone, for example, would now take about 77 pills, rather than about 22....

The Legislature’s 2014 law could not apply to DeLeon’s sentence because, at the time, the Florida Constitution explicitly prohibited changes in sentencing laws to apply retroactively.... [That was changed in 2018 when] voters approved Amendment 11 last year.

At Gadsden Correctional Facility, it was cause for celebration. Another prisoner serving 15 years, also for hydrocodone, told DeLeon that the change in Florida’s Constitution could mean their freedom. “This is exactly what’s going to help us get out of here,” she told DeLeon. DeLeon’s family was so excited for her re-sentencing hearing, they started preparing for her to come home, buying canvasses for her to paint.

In July, however, the judge explained his hands were tied. Her motion for a new sentence was denied because state lawmakers first need to lay out a framework for judges to follow. It’s unclear when, or if, lawmakers will do so.

Earlier this year, lawmakers again increased the number of hydrocodone pills required to trigger mandatory sentences. Bradley, the state senator who sponsored the 2014 drug sentencing change, said he would be open to easing sentences for old drug cases. But he said he doesn’t consider it a priority....

Hundreds of people like DeLeon are in prison serving outdated sentences for hydrocodone or oxycodone trafficking that would not have been handed down if they committed the same crimes today.

One analysis by the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonpartisan group that’s done policy analysis for the Florida Senate, found that up to 640 current inmates fall into this category, while researchers with the Project on Accountable Justice housed at Florida State University found up to 935 inmates. Both estimates have not been previously published.

For one year, it costs Florida $20.7 million to incarcerate 935 people, according to “full operating cost” data from the Department of Corrections. Multiply that expense over their entire sentences, and the cost to taxpayers balloons to more than a hundred million dollars.

November 14, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 11, 2019

Ironies abound as Deputy AG complains about "whole categories of drug crimes ... being ignored and not enforced" by prosecutors

I just had some time today to review this notable speech delivered this past Friday by Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at the Wake Forest School of Law.  As always, I recommend the speech in full because there is too much in the DAG's remarks for me to reprint and engage them all here.  But, as I read though the speech's laments about the failure to enforce drug laws, I could not help but wonder if the DAG gave any thought to DOJ's own persistent disinclination to prosecute the many thousands of (federally illegal) recreational marijuana businesses that operate openly in nearly a dozen US states.  This thought was among the many ironies I saw as DAG Rosen in this speech praises federal crime fighting efforts while criticizing the work of some local prosecutors. Here are some extended excerpts followed by a bit more commentary:

At the Department of Justice, reducing violent crime is one of our top priorities....  So let me start this discussion about violent crime with this simple observation: To understand what works in combating crime, one need look no further than the highly successful efforts of state and federal law enforcement over recent decades.  In the early 1990s, crime reached an all-time high.  Violent crime and murder rates in particular had steadily increased over the preceding decades. Many major American cities and communities were not safe places to live or work.

In response to this troubling trend, legislatures increased penalties for gun offenders, prosecutors pursued stiff penalties for violent criminals, and the Department of Justice did its part by launching a series of nationwide initiatives to stem the tide of rising crime.  For instance, in 1991, the Department created Project Triggerlock, a highly successful program that vigorously pursued firearms cases by targeting the most-violent offenders.  A decade later, the Department launched Project Safe Neighborhoods or “PSN.”  As a crime reduction strategy, PSN focuses federal and state resources on the most pressing violent crime problems in our communities, and each district develops comprehensive solutions to address them....

After reaching a peak around 1993, crime steadily declined for the next 20-plus years.  Violent crime was cut in half.  A study published in 2009 concluded that PSN successfully reduced violent crime with case studies showing reductions as high as 42 percent in certain locations.

Unfortunately, after decades of improvement, a reversal took place, with stunning increases in violent crime in 2015 and 2016.  Homicides alone increased by more than 20 percent.  Concerned that we were at risk of losing ground, the incoming Trump Administration and the Justice Department snapped into action and returned to tried-and-true strategies for reducing crime.

In his first month in office, President Trump issued a series of executive orders “designed to restore safety in America.”  In response, the Attorney General announced the reinvigoration of Project Safe Neighborhood as a centerpiece of the Administration’s strategy to reduce violent crime.  In October 2017, Attorney General Sessions directed all 93 U.S. Attorneys to implement enhanced violent-crime reduction programs and to reinvigorate partnerships with state, local, and tribal law enforcement.... Since redoubling our efforts in this way, we have increased federal firearm prosecutions by over 40 percent compared to the last two years of the previous administration. The joint state-and-federal efforts have worked, and the objective statistics prove it.

The FBI recently released its annual crime statistics for 2018, and, for the second consecutive year, the number of violent crimes decreased nationwide.  In 2018, the violent crime rate decreased 3.9 percent from 2017, and the rate for nearly every type of violent crime decreased as well....

Unfortunately, a dangerous trend is emerging that threatens to blunt the progress we’ve made in reducing crime.  Despite the obvious successes, a small but increasing number of state and local district attorneys have vowed not to enforce entire categories of core criminal offenses as part of a misguided experiment in social justice reform.  From Philadelphia in the East to Dallas in the middle and Seattle in the West, a curtain of non-enforcement policies has descended on some unfortunate cities and counties.

It’s a problem Attorney General Barr highlighted in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in August.  There, he spoke of “the emergence in some of our large cities of District Attorneys that style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”

The radical decriminalization policies these social-reform DAs have publicly announced and implemented are truly shocking when they are made transparent.  Despite a decade of record-level drug overdose fatalities, whole categories of drug crimes, including several distribution offenses, are being ignored and not enforced.  Likewise, criminals who commit theft below certain thresholds, such as below $500, are given a free pass.  In several jurisdictions, reform DAs have effectively decriminalized prostitution, making it more difficult to fight human trafficking.  If those weren’t surprising enough, social-reform DAs have announced that the categories of malicious destruction of property, and shoplifting, will go unprosecuted.  The same with regard to criminal threats.  Even offenders who resist arrest and assault law enforcement officials are skating prosecution under these DAs’ non-enforcement policies.

At the Justice Department, we emphasize working closely with our state and local law enforcement colleagues.  But I am concerned that these social reform DAs are falling down on the job.  A prosecutor’s duty is straightforward — enforce the law fairly and impartially and keep the public safe.  By refusing to prosecute basic offenses, social reform DAs are failing to fulfill that vital obligation.  No society can have justice when stealing has been effectively licensed, open-air drug markets are allowed to flourish, and neither victim nor police officer trust that those who break the law will be held accountable....

Not only will these non-prosecution strategies inevitably make communities less safe, they also undermine our constitutional system of separation of powers.  It doesn’t take a law degree from a fine institution like Wake Forest to understand the principle that the legislative branch writes the law; the judicial branch interprets the law; and the executive branch enforces the law. District attorneys, of course, are part of the executive branch, responsible for enforcing the law. By refusing to prosecute broad swaths of core criminal offenses, social-reform DAs are ignoring duly-enacted laws in favor of their own personal notions of what they think the law should be....

Now, with regard to these DA’s personal policy preferences, let me turn briefly to the issue of prosecutorial discretion. There is no question that prosecutors have discretion to decide what cases to prosecute and how to spend their limited resources.  But these DAs are not making individualized decisions based on the facts and circumstances of particular cases. They are predetermining whole categories of offenses for non-enforcement.  They are effectively legislating through inaction.  And the offenses they are unilaterally striking from the books are not antiquated or rare; they are basic criminal laws directed at maintaining public safety.  These DAs’ decriminalization strategies go far beyond prosecutorial discretion and fly in the face of the fundamental concept that no one part of the government exercises total control of our legal system. If you believe in the rule of law, that is a problem....

Some have argued that recent criminal justice reform legislation like the First Step Act represents a repudiation of historical law enforcement practices.  Not so. There was wide bi-partisan support for the First Step Act.  Among other things, that legislation focuses on reducing recidivism, to help prevent future crimes. The Department of Justice and our Bureau of Prisons have made implementing that legislation a priority, as Attorney General Barr and I have both emphasized.

Let me give you a few illustrations: In addition to sentence reductions that have resulted in the release of more than 4,700 inmates, we have updated policies for inmates to obtain “compassionate release,” and since the Act was signed into law, 107 inmates have received compassionate release, compared to 34 in 2018.  We launched a pilot program that has allowed over 260 elderly or terminally-ill inmates to transition to home confinement.  We have further individualized drug-treatment plans, so about 16,000 inmates are now enrolled in recovery programs.  And to reduce recidivism, we are advancing re-entry programming to help past offenders find work and relaunch their lives.

But here is the key point about these improvements from the First Step Act: It is only because of the success of the law enforcement approaches of the last several decades that we had the opportunity to consider and implement these improvements to the criminal justice system. And a key part of fighting crime and protecting victims is helping to make sure that when these prisoners are released — as many of them will be, after serving their sentences — we give them the best possible chance at not re-offending. It’s about public safety, plain and simple....

Finally, let me address one other aspect of the non-enforcement policy problem.  Some defenders of reform DAs claim that the non-prosecution strategies merely reflect the will of the communities that elected them.  If that were so, one wonders why those communities’ legislators would not simply change the laws to reflect their constituents’ views. Indeed, one reason greater transparency about these non-enforcement policies is warranted is that it is far from clear that the public knows and wants prosecutors to tolerate crimes like burglary and theft without enforcement.

Do you think Americans really want prosecutors who won’t enforce whole categories of laws?  It can be hard to overlook that some of these social reform DAs were elected in low-turnout primaries backed by unusual funding from out-of-state ideological advocates.  But elections are up to voters, so I do not mean to address any individual jurisdiction or any particular DA; my question is what kind of system will we have if our laws are simply to be ignored?  And I am especially focused on the problem that non-enforcement policies present to the goal of continuing to reduce violent crime and make our communities safer.

I find jarring that this speech starts with an emphasis on making the reduction of violent crime a priority and then assails local DAs for giving less attention to non-violent crimes. It seems deeply misguided to say in blanket terms that "non-prosecution strategies inevitably make communities less safe" when the non-prosecution policy involves, say, low-level marijuana offices.  Of course, the biggest irony here is that the federal government for the last decade has been pursuing various "non-prosecution strategies" with respect to state-compliant federal marijuana offenses.  Notably, the range of non-enforcement policies adopted by the feds have obviously not undermined "the goal of continuing to reduce violent crime and make our communities safer."  But apparently, in the view of DAG Rosen, what is good for the (essentially unelected) federal prosecutors in terms marijuana non-enforcement is no good for the (locally elected) state prosecutors.

Adding to the ironies here is DAG Rosen's praise and commitment to the FIRST STEP Act.  I am so very pleased to see DAG Rosen praise the reduction of thousands of federal sentences, the early releases to home confinement, the individualized drug-treatment plans, and other efforts to advance re-entry programming to help past offenders.  But I surmise that this work is in much harmony with what progressive prosecutors are committed to doing: finding alternatives to excessive prison terms, addressing public health problems like addiction outside the criminal justice system, and helping offenders "find work and relaunch their lives."  I also think progressive prosecutors would generally acknowledge that low crime rates help provide "the opportunity to consider and implement these improvements to the criminal justice system."  In other words, I believe progressive prosecutors are concerned about "public safety, plain and simple," but they reasonable believe that they can achieve that end without turning to law enforcement and the prison system to address every societal issue.

November 11, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

"Is the ‘War on Drugs’ Over? Arrest Statistics Say No"

The title of this post is the title of this new New York Times Upshot piece by Susan Stellin. Here are excerpts:

Despite bipartisan calls to treat drug addiction as a public health issue rather than as a crime — and despite the legalization of marijuana in more states — arrests for drugs increased again last year.

According to estimated crime statistics released by the F.B.I. in September, there were 1,654,282 arrests for drugs in 2018, a number that has increased every year since 2015, after declining over the previous decade. Meanwhile, arrests for violent crime and property crime have continued to trend downward.

Drugs have been the top reason people have been arrested in the United States for at least the past 10 years, and marijuana has been the top drug involved in those arrests. The percentage of drug arrests that have been for possession (instead of for sale or manufacturing charges) has also risen, to 86 percent last year from around 67 percent in 1989. And the majority of drug arrests have involved small quantities.

“We’ve gotten so used to the idea that this is normal to arrest so many people for tiny amounts of drugs, but it’s not normal,” said Joseph E. Kennedy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who was an author of a paper titled Sharks and Minnows in the War on Drugs: A Study of Quantity, Race and Drug Type in Drug Arrests.

Although many arrests don’t result in conviction — some are dismissed and some result in pleas to a lesser offense — any drug conviction can harm employment, housing and educational prospects. And this continues to disproportionately affect African-Americans and Hispanics, even as many conservatives have joined liberals in saying that racial disparities in the criminal justice system need to be addressed....

It’s not clear why drug arrests are rising after a downturn in those arrests from 2006 to 2015. It may reflect in part a tougher enforcement approach begun under Jeff Sessions by the current administration, even with respect to marijuana. Even in states where marijuana is legal, people can still be arrested if they violate state laws like limits on the amount allowed for personal use. And increasing use nationwide — perhaps with an assumption of more leniency — may put more people at risk of arrest. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 43.5 million people 12 and older used marijuana in the past year, a number that has risen since 2011.

Public opinion has shifted decisively in favor of marijuana legalization. But Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, pointed out that 39 states haven’t passed laws making recreational marijuana legal, and that police practices and attitudes toward drugs vary among law enforcement agencies across the nation. “Some departments still see arrest as a measure of productivity, even though many of us see that as outdated,” he said.

Mr. Wexler says the overdose epidemic has contributed to how police departments respond to drugs, particularly in communities that lack diversion programs like the one in Seattle. “Today you have more recognition that you need to get people into treatment, but treatment is expensive and resources aren’t equal around the country,” he said, adding that “in many parts of the U.S., arrest is viewed as the only alternative that they have.”...

Better data collection and reporting about drug arrests would help inform policy as attitudes toward the drug war shift, particularly with respect to marijuana. “Anyone who’s spending money and law enforcement resources on this needs to be keeping track of this data,” said Mr. Kennedy, the U.N.C. law professor. “We have a right to know who we are arresting.”

November 5, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Retroactive application of Oklahoma sentencing reforms sets up record-setting day for commutations

This recent article from Oklahoma, headlined "‘Largest single-day commutation in nation’s history’ expected to take place in Oklahoma next month," reports on a notable example of an interesting process being used to make a criminal justice reform initiative retroactive in the Sooner state.  Here are the basic details:

More than 400 Oklahoma prison inmates are expected to pass through an “expedited” commutation process on Nov. 1, a number believed to be the largest one-day total in United States history, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steve Bickley said.

The accelerated process is thanks to House Bill 1269, a bi-partisan bill which was passed this summer and made retroactive a number of criminal justice reforms that reclassified some drug and property crimes.

The new law goes into effect Nov. 1 and the Pardon and Parole Board is holding a special meeting that day where it will review nearly 900 inmates the law makes eligible for the expedited docket. “All the research I’ve done, this will be the largest single-day commutation in the nation’s history,” Bickley said....

The Nov. 1 hearing differs from the normal commutation process in a number of ways, Bickley said. Rather than the typical two-step process that often takes several months, the hearing is expected to take less than an hour. “It’s definitely going to be a much faster up-and-down process,” he said. Inmates who pass through the expedited process are expected to be released from prison in November.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, in a statement, offered praise for the entities preparing for the large number of commutations. “I applaud the hard work of the Pardon and Parole board and the staff as they prepare for this historic day. The board is wisely implementing a thorough process to ensure their actions on Nov. 1 reflect the intentions of Oklahomans who voted for State Question 780, while also prioritizing the safety of our communities. The Department of Corrections has also been a committed partner in putting people first in this process by hosting transition fairs inside state prisons to connect non-violent offenders with the resources they need to succeed when they re-enter society.”

When State Question 780 was made into law in 2016, it made possession of “personal use” amounts of most drugs a misdemeanor and upped the felony threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1,000.  But it wasn’t until the passage of HB 1269 earlier this year that those changes were made potentially retroactive for those still in prison for those crimes.

The new law mandates that, rather than strict retroactivity, the Pardon and Parole Board must decide which inmates affected by HB 1269 get an accelerated commutation and which inmates must go through the standard commutation process, Bickley said.

There are two dockets on Nov. 1, one for 793 inmates on the “drug possession” docket and one for 99 inmates on the “property crime” docket. Everyone on those two dockets is technically eligible for accelerated commutation, though the list will be whittled down extensively, Bickley said.

First, there are a number of inmates on the two lists who will not be recommended for accelerated commutation due to misconduct while in prison. Bickley said some inmates on the lists were involved in the events that led to the recent lockdowns at a number of state prisons, and those inmates would not receive recommendations. Additionally, district attorneys across the state can file challenges to specific commutations that may affect whether an inmate gets a recommendation, Bickley said, and as of Wednesday the Pardon and Parole Board had heard from only three of the more than 20 district attorneys across Oklahoma.

“And of course you could have some who receive recommendations and are signed off on by the governor, but they have additional sentences to serve or a detainer by another agency who will not be able to leave prison due to those factors,” Bickley said. Still, he expects “more than 400 and less than 500” inmates to be granted commutations by the end of the hearing, he said.

October 26, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Another LWOP federal drug sentence reduced under § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

Regular readers may already be tired of many prior posts in which I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act that now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  But I continue to see value in highlighting developing jurisprudence under this provision largely because I think, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.

Last week, I flagged in this post a notable recent ruling in US v. Brown, No. 4:05-CR-00227-1, 2019 WL 4942051 (S.D. Iowa Oct. 8, 2019), which rejected a § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion to reduce an extreme sentence for a federal drug offender.  Today, thanks to seeing this press report headlined "Judge in Oregon grants compassionate release for 76-year-old man serving life sentence for drug conspiracy," I can report on a successful § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion to reduce an extreme (LWOP) sentence for a federal drug offender.  The ruling US v. Soears, No. 3:98-cr-0208-SI-22, 2019 WL 5190877 (D. Ore. Oct. 15, 2019), is well described in the above-linked press piece:

A judge has ordered the release of a 76-year-old man who was sentenced to life and served nearly 21 years behind bars for running a large cocaine distribution ring, finding he meets the “extraordinary and compelling’’ reasons for compassionate release.

Despite objections from prosecutors, U.S. Judge Michael H. Simon found Adolph Spears Sr. suffers from potentially terminal health problems and is no longer a danger to the community. "In light of the age of Spears’ previous convictions, Spears’ age, and Spears’ physical and medical condition, the Court does not find that at this time Spears poses a significant risk to the community," Simon wrote in a 13-page opinion Tuesday.

The judge’s ruling is a direct result of changes to federal law from a criminal justice bill called the First Step Act, which passed late last year and allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences if an inmate meets the criteria for compassionate release....

Because of his medical problems, Spears was moved in May from the federal prison in Sheridan to the Butner Medical Facility in North Carolina. "While he has been at Butner, family members have made regular cross-country visits to see him, believing that each one may be the last," his defense lawyer Lisa Ludwig wrote to the court. "Allowing him to spend the time he has left being cared for by the family who loves him will be an act of compassion to Mr. Spears, but also to the family who cares so deeply for him."

Spears has multiple chronic serious medical ailments, a limited life expectancy and depends on a wheelchair to get around, according to one of his medical experts. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer in June 2018. He also suffers from poorly controlled diabetes, cataracts, pain from spinal surgery, chronic kidney disease, limited mobility and difficulty swallowing. Three of his daughters, a daughter-in-law and granddaughters have offered to house Spears if he’s released and provide medical and financial support.

Spears submitted his release request to the prisons bureau on Sept. 13, the same day he filed a motion with the court. On Sept. 30, the prisons bureau denied Spears’ request, and said he could appeal or wait until 30 days after his initial request was made to file a motion with the court. The judge said he waited until Tuesday, more than 30 days after Spears made his request to the prisons bureau, to consider the motion.

The judge said Spears’ deteriorating physical health met the requirements for compassionate release, and said it appeared that the federal prisons bureau failed to consider anything beyond whether Spears had a terminal illness. The U.S. probation office, at the judge’s request, approved the home of one of Spears’ daughters for his release, finding her suitable as his caregiver.

Prosecutors had argued that Spears remains a danger, largely because he was convicted of a significant drug conspiracy and he possessed guns during his drug trafficking activities. He also previously was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to 25 years after he offered a man $500 to burn down an IRS agent’s house while he was being investigated in 1978 for tax evasion, according to court records.

Federal prosecutors argued that Spears’ age and medical condition don’t render him "so incapacitated" that he couldn’t resume his criminal conduct, pointing out he was leading a drug ring in his late 50s. Simon said he took into account Spears’ criminal history but noted that Spears’ most recent drug conviction is more than 19 years old and his last conviction for a crime of violence is more than 40 years old.

It’s unlikely Spears would have faced as serious a sentence today if convicted of the same conduct, Simon noted. He was convicted of distributing crack cocaine when sentences for such drug crimes were much higher and judges had less discretion, Simon wrote. Since then, Congress has made changes to avoid sentencing disparities in such drug cases. The judge said he’ll order new conditions for Spears’ release and a lifetime of federal supervision.

Some prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

October 16, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 07, 2019

Another update on Chicago "stash-house sting" litigation showcasing feds ugly drug war tactics

Via a series of posts last year, I was able to report updates from Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, concerning the extraordinary litigation her clinic has done in response to so-called "stash house stings" in which federal agents lure defendants into seeking to rob a (non-existent) drug stash-house.  In this 2017 post, I highlighted this lengthy Chicago Tribune article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," on this topic. 

I now see that the Chicago Tribune has this new lengthy article, headlined "Convicted in a controversial stash house sting operation, Leslie Mayfield is struggling to rebuild his life after prison." which focuses on one stash-house defendant while also telling the broader stories of these cases.  I recommend the new Tribune article in full, and here are excerpts:

Leslie Mayfield wasn’t used to entering a courtroom except in shackles.  Over the years, through his trial for conspiring to rob a drug stash house, his sentencing to a decades-long prison term and his long-shot fight to overturn his conviction on entrapment grounds, Mayfield had always been escorted into court by deputy U.S. marshals from a lockup in back....

But recently, he took a seat in U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang’s courtroom gallery, whispering to his attorney that it all felt strange as he waited for his name to be called....  Reviewing reports on Mayfield’s progress, Chang noted that since his release from prison, he’d found a job, reconnected with his family and maintained a strong motive to stay straight.  Then the judge made the transformation official, agreeing that Mayfield, 51, no longer needed court supervision.

The ruling marked a quiet milestone in the widely criticized sting operations in which the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used informants to lure unsuspecting targets into a scheme to rob drug stash houses — an undercover ruse concocted by the government.

For years, the stings were considered a smashing success, touted as a law enforcement tool to remove dangerous criminals from the streets.  But the practice came under fire in 2014 when attorneys for the University of Chicago Law School mounted a legal challenge on behalf of nearly four dozen Chicago-area defendants alleging the stings disproportionately targeted African Americans and Hispanics.

Both the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office staunchly defended the operations in court, saying they followed rigorous guidelines to ensure the stings were lawful.  While the legal effort to prove racial discrimination fell short, the tactics drew sharp rebukes from many judges.  Prosecutors began quietly dismissing the more serious charges, and over the next year or so, most of the defendants — including Mayfield — were sentenced to time served.

As the first to be cleared of all court supervision, Mayfield could be viewed as a success story, but he’s struggled in many ways.  Like so many ex-cons, Mayfield is learning how hard it can be to rebuild his life after prison. He also continues to fight guilt over the plight of his brother and cousin — both of whom he recruited into the scheme and are still serving decadeslong prison sentences....

The outlines of each stash house sting followed the same basic pattern: ATF informants identified people they believed would commit a drug-related robbery.  If the target met certain criteria — including a violent criminal background — agents approved the sting.

The elaborate operations included a fake stash house location, fictitious amounts of money and drugs, and other made-up details of a robbery plot.  An undercover agent posing as a disgruntled drug dealer followed a script aimed at convincing the target to agree on secret recordings to take part in the robbery, pledge to bring guns — and use them if necessary.

Since agents claimed that massive quantities of drugs were involved, the prosecutions often carried eye-popping sentences, sometimes even life behind bars.  Nearly all the targets, though, turned out to be African American or Hispanic — many of whom had minimal criminal histories....

Mayfield was convicted at trial in 2010 and handed a 27-year sentence.  His brother, with only a nonviolent drug conviction in his past, and his cousin both were given 25-year prison terms.

In 2014, the University of Chicago’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic led an effort to have charges against 43 defendants dismissed on grounds that the cases were racially biased.  In a landmark hearing in December 2017, nine federal judges overseeing the cases heard testimony from dueling experts on policing who came to dramatically different conclusions.

The U.S. attorney’s office denied that the stings disproportionately affected minorities, arguing that targets were selected by their propensity for violence, not race.  For instance, while out on bond, two men facing stash house-related indictments were charged in separate shootings, including the wounding of a Chicago police officer.

But many judges overseeing the cases had clear concerns that the ends did not justify the means.  In a decision that wasn’t binding but served as a guide for other judges, then-U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said the stings shared an ugly racial component and should “be relegated to the dark corridors of our past.”

While Castillo stopped short of dismissing the case before him, his 2018 ruling had a ripple effect.  At the urging of Castillo and other judges, the U.S. attorney’s office began offering plea deals and dropping counts that involved stiff mandatory minimum sentences.

The results were startling. While many of the 43 defendants faced mandatory sentences of 15 to 35 years in prison if convicted, 32 instead were released with sentences of time served after pleading guilty to lesser charges.  Most of the others received prison terms that were significantly below federal sentencing guidelines.

While the cases hadn’t been thrown out of court, Alison Siegler, the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic’s founder, noted in an April report to the 7th Circuit Bar Association that "the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the ATF have entirely stopped bringing stash house cases in Chicago, even as those cases continue to be prosecuted elsewhere in the country.”

Some prior related posts:

October 7, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 04, 2019

Mass Supreme Judicial Court vacates manslaughter conviction based on merely providing heroin to person who overdosed

As reported in this local article, the top court in Massachusetts has vacated "the involuntary manslaughter conviction of a man who provided drugs in a fatal overdose."  Here is the context and commentary from the press piece: 

Jesse Carrillo was convicted two years ago for the 2013 fatal heroin overdose of fellow UMass Amherst student Eric Sinacori, who was 20 when he died. On Thursday, the state's Supreme Judicial Court vacated Carrillo's manslaughter conviction, arguing that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence that Carrillo knew the heroin would cause a fatal overdose.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said in a statement that it's "disheartening that the Supreme Judicial Court does not believe heroin use carries a high probability of substantial harm or death." He added: "The families who have lost loved ones to this brutal epidemic would surely disagree with the Court’s analysis, as do we.”

But Northeastern University law professor Leo Beletsky says if the case were upheld, it would have set a dangerous precedent. "If the government could charge every person who shares drugs with someone who subsequently dies, the way that the government had argued this case previously would essentially turn those friends, those partners, those co-users into potential murderers," he said.

The full unanimous ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is available at this link, and it my be of particular interest to law profs and 1Ls now getting to the homicide unit in their CrimLaw classes (and to many others). Here are excerpts from the opinion's introduction: 

To find a defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter caused by wanton or reckless conduct, our case law requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant engaged in conduct that creates "a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another."  Commonwealth v. Welansky, 316 Mass. 383, 399 (1944).  Selling or giving heroin to another person may be wanton or reckless conduct where, under the circumstances, there is a high degree of likelihood that the person will suffer substantial harm, such as an overdose or death, from the use of those drugs.  And in many cases the circumstances surrounding the distribution of heroin will permit a rational finder of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the transfer of heroin created a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm, such as an overdose or death. But not every case will present circumstances that make such conduct "wanton or reckless." This is one such case.

We conclude that the mere possibility that the transfer of heroin will result in an overdose does not suffice to meet the standard of wanton or reckless conduct under our law. The Commonwealth must introduce evidence showing that, considering the totality of the particular circumstances, the defendant knew or should have known that his or her conduct created a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm, such as an overdose or death.

Here, no evidence was presented during the Commonwealth's case-in-chief that would permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the inherent possibility of substantial harm arising from the use of heroin -- which is present in any distribution of heroin -- had been increased by specific circumstances to create a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm.  For instance, the Commonwealth did not present evidence that the defendant knew or should have known that the heroin was unusually potent or laced with fentanyl; evidence that Sinacori was particularly vulnerable to an overdose because of his age, use of other drugs, or prior overdoses; or evidence that the defendant knew or should have known that Sinacori had overdosed but failed to seek help.  In the absence of any such evidence, we conclude that the Commonwealth did not meet its burden of producing sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that the defendant's conduct in this case created a high degree of likelihood that Sinacori would suffer substantial harm, such as an overdose or death, from his use of the heroin.  The defendant's conviction of involuntary manslaughter must therefore be vacated, and a required finding of not guilty entered.

As many of my former students likely recall, the Welansky case is still one of my favorite cases to teach during 1L Criminal Law. I find it fascinating to see that tragic case and the legal precedent that it set still of great importance 75 years later in very different sad setting.

October 4, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 03, 2019

US District Judge rejects feds lawsuit to enjoin operation of proposed safe injection site for opioid users in Philadelphia

As reported in this NPR piece, a federal judge "has ruled that a Philadelphia nonprofit group's plan to open the first site in the U.S. where people can use illegal opioids under medical supervision does not violate federal drug laws, delivering a major setback to Justice Department lawyers who launched a legal challenge to block the facility." Here is more about the important ruling:

U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled Wednesday that Safehouse's plan to allow people to bring in their own drugs and use them in a medical facility to help combat fatal overdoses does not violate the Controlled Substances Act. "The ultimate goal of Safehouse's proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it," McHugh wrote in his opinion, which represents the first legal decision about whether supervised injection sites can be legally permissible under U.S. law.

The decision means that the country's first supervised injection site, or what advocates call an "overdose prevention site," can go forward. Justice Department prosecutors had sued to block the site, calling the proposal "in-your-face illegal activity."

While local officials from New York to San Francisco praised the decision, the federal government is expected to appeal. "The Department of Justice remains committed to preventing illegal drug injection sites from opening," said Bill McSwain, U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania. "Today's opinion is merely the first step in a much longer legal process that will play out. This case is obviously far from over."

Most studies show that the supervised injection sites can drive down fatal overdoses. These sites are credited with restricting the spread of infectious diseases. And advocates say the facilities help move more people into treatment. The American Medical Association has endorsed launching supervised injection site pilot programs.

Ronda Goldfein, who is Safehouse's vice president and secretary, said winning judicial approval is a major feat for advocates of the proposed site, which also has the backing of top city officials and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. "Philadelphia is being devastated. We've lost about three people a day" to opioid overdoses, Goldfein said. "And we say we had to do something better and we couldn't sit back and let that death toll rise. And the court agreed with us."...

Supervised injection sites exist in Canada and Europe, but no such site has gotten legal permission to open in the U.S. Cities like New York, Denver and Seattle have been publicly debating similar proposals, but many were waiting for the outcome of the court battle in Philadelphia. Attorneys general from Washington, D.C., and seven states including Michigan, New Mexico and Oregon, in addition to city leaders in five cities, urged the court before the decision to rule in favor of Safehouse.

Legal hurdles are not Safehouse's only obstacles. The facility is planning to launch in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, which has been ravaged by the opioid crisis, but some neighbors have resisted welcoming an injection site into their community. Community activist Amanda Fury said the court decision will not change the hardened battle lines over this issue there. "I've never been in the business of trying to change people's minds on this," said Fury, who supports the measure but admits that residents are divided....

In court, meanwhile, prosecutors have contended that the plan violated a provision of the Controlled Substances Act that makes it illegal to own a property where drugs are being used — known as "the crack house statute." But backers of Safehouse argued the law was outdated and not written to prevent the opening of a medical facility aimed at saving lives in the midst of the opioid crisis....

On Wednesday, in a move that surprised observers, McHugh agreed. He wrote that there "is no support for the view that Congress meant to criminalize projects such as that proposed by Safehouse." McHugh rejected federal prosecutor's view that this was an open-and-shut case of a proposal clearly violating federal drug statutes. Instead, he noted that the purpose of Safehouse is not to provide a place for people to engage in unlawful activity. "Viewed objectively, what Safehouse proposes is far closer to the harm reduction strategies expressly endorsed by Congress," McHugh wrote.

The full opinion in US v. Safehouse is available at this link, and it makes for a very interesting read. These part of the opinion's introduction highlights how notions of judicial modesty in application of criminal law moved Judge McHugh:

As discussed below, courts must exercise extreme care in discerning the objective sought by Congress in enacting a statute.  That said, having reviewed materials I consider appropriate in discerning what Congress sought to address in enacting § 856(a)(2), there is no support for the view that Congress meant to criminalize projects such as that proposed by Safehouse.  Although the language, taken to its broadest extent, can certainly be interpreted to apply to Safehouse’s proposed safe injection site, to attribute such meaning to the legislators who adopted the language is illusory.  Safe injection sites were not considered by Congress and could not have been, because their use as a possible harm reduction strategy among opioid users had not yet entered public discourse.  Particularly in the area of criminal law, it is the province of Congress to determine what is worthy of sanction.  A line of authority dating back to Chief Justice John Marshall cautions courts against claiming power that properly rests with the legislative branch.  A responsible use of judicial power under those circumstances is to decline to expand the scope of criminal liability under the statute and allow Congress to address the issue.

The US Deputy Attorney General released this statement following this ruling, which states "The Department is disappointed in the Court’s ruling and will take all available steps to pursue further judicial review. Any attempt to open illicit drug injection sites in other jurisdictions while this case is pending will continue to be met with immediate action by the Department."

October 3, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Prez candidate Beto O'Rourke proposes "Drug War Justice Grants" funding by marijuana tax revenues

As reported in this Hill piece,"President hopeful Beto O'Rourke on Thursday unveiled a plan to legalize marijuana and end the war on drugs." Here are the basics:

The former Texas congressman would grant clemency to those currently serving sentences for marijuana possession, establish a model for marijuana legalization and give grants to those affected by the war on drugs to help them benefit from the new industry.

The “Drug War Justice Grants” would be given to those formerly incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses in state and federal prison. Licenses to produce, distribute, or sell marijuana would be funneled to minority-owned businesses and fees would be waived for low-income individuals who had previously been convicted of related offenses.

“We need to not only end the prohibition on marijuana, but also repair the damage done to the communities of color disproportionately locked up in our criminal justice system or locked out of opportunity because of the War on Drugs,” O'Rourke said in a statement.

This page on the O'Rourke campaign website provides some background and details, and here are excerpts focused on criminal justice matters:

In January 2009, Beto O’Rourke, one of the youngest members of the El Paso City Council, introduced a longshot resolution calling for an “honest, open national debate” on ending the prohibition of marijuana.... To Beto’s surprise, the resolution passed unanimously. But the mayor vetoed the resolution later that day....

In 2011, Beto published the book Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico: An Argument for Ending the Prohibition of Marijuana. Long before the legalization of marijuana was overwhelmingly popular with the American public, Beto laid out his case for ending the decades-long prohibition on marijuana and repairing the damage done to the communities of color that are disproportionately impacted....

The War on Drugs has been catastrophic for communities of color, and our policy toward marijuana has been particularly egregious. Despite similar rates of use, African-Americans are almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Yet, a 2017 survey of marijuana business owners in states allowing them found that only 19% identified as non-white. These statistics tell the story of marijuana laws in our country, where certain communities have been subjected to over-policing and criminalization while others are being presented lucrative business opportunities. Beto is committed to rewriting this story and rectifying the harm caused by decades of unjust marijuana policy.

As President, Beto will:

Legalize Marijuana...

Use clemency power to release those currently serving sentences for marijuana possession and establish a review board to determine whether others currently serving sentences related to marijuana should be released;

Expunge the records of those who have been convicted for possession and prevent the conviction from precluding these individuals from accessing housing, employment, education, and federal benefits, or from having their driver’s licenses suspended;...

Remove cannabis-related charges as grounds for deportation or denial of citizenship. The Trump Administration has explicitly targeted those with marijuana possession convictions for deportation, even though marijuana has been legalized in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Invest revenue from the marijuana industry in communities impacted by the War on Drugs through “Drug War Justice Grants” and Equitable Licensing Programs....

To guarantee that opportunities to profit from a regulated marijuana market are made available to communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, Beto will:

Call for a federal tax on the marijuana industry, revenue from which will be used to:

Provide a monthly “Drug War Justice Grant” to those formerly incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses in state and federal prison for a period based on time served. The grants will be funded completely by the tax on the marijuana industry.

Fund substance use treatment programs.

Support re-entry services for those who have been incarcerated for possession.

Invest in communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests, including investments in housing and employment support, substance use and mental health treatment, peer and recovery support services, life skills training, victims’ services.

Support those disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests, including those who have been convicted of marijuana possession themselves in participating in the marijuana businesses by providing technical assistance, industry-specific training, access to interest free/low-interest loans, and access to investment financing and legal services.

Ensure those most impacted by the War on Drugs are the ones benefiting from the economic activity related to marijuna.

As President, Beto will tie federal funding for criminal justice systems to requirements that states or local governments:

Waive licensing fees for producing, distributing, or selling marijuana for low-income individuals who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.

September 19, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 16, 2019

The impact of the FIRST STEP Act as told through one (all-too-typical) case

Jesse Wegman has this notable new New York Times piece headlined fully "‘All You Can Do Is Take Care of Your End’: For one inmate serving a life sentence, a new federal law gave hope where there had been none." I highly recommend the piece in full, and here are some extended excerpts:

Imagine that at the age of 28, you’re told you are going to spend the rest of your life in prison with no chance of release. What would you do with all that time?

There’s no shame in admitting you’d want to throw in the towel.  It’s a rational reaction to a hopeless situation: Why bother working to improve yourself, learning something new or making amends if nothing you do will ever make a difference?

Gary Rhines, now 46, had every reason to choose that route, after receiving a mandatory sentence of life without parole in 2004 for being a repeat drug offender.  As a lifer, Mr. Rhines was last in line for all prison programming; no one cared whether he participated or not.  But that didn’t stop him.  He earned his high school equivalency diploma.  He enrolled in drug-treatment and anger-management programs, learned industrial painting and how to operate a forklift.  He received a certificate in a culinary-arts program and worked in the prison chapel.

“All you can do is take care of your end,” Mr. Rhines told me recently in a telephone interview. “I had a list of things that were very important to my success.” If he didn’t do them, he said, “it was me giving up on myself.”

This summer, all those years of work paid off. At a hearing on July 24 in a Harrisburg, Pa., Federal District Court, Judge John E. Jones III resentenced Mr. Rhines to time served — in his case, 18 years, which includes nearly three years of pretrial detention.

The judge was able to impose that sentence thanks to the First Step Act, a new federal law that alleviates some of the most draconian punishments handed down under a string of federal criminal laws and sentencing guidelines passed in the 1980s and 1990s....

The crime that landed Mr. Rhines in prison for life was relatively minor — he was charged with participating in the sale, in Pennsylvania, of 66 grams of crack cocaine, a little more than the weight of a pack of M&Ms.  The crime involved no weapon and no violence. One of his co-defendants received a sentence of nine to 23 months.  But Mr. Rhines had been convicted of selling small amounts of drugs twice before, and that made all the difference: Under the sentencing laws, a third drug conviction involving more than 50 grams of crack meant a mandatory sentence of life without parole....

In requiring stunningly long sentences, the crime bills took power away from judges to make decisions based on a defendant’s unique circumstances — that is, to judge — at the moment such discretion was most needed.  Mr. Rhines’s judge might have taken into account not only the nonviolent nature of his crime, but also that by the age of 7, he was watching his mother use heroin and get physically abused by multiple boyfriends.  Or that because of her drug addiction, he and his brothers and sisters went for stretches without food, heat, electricity or hot water.  Or that he stopped going to school at 11 to provide for his siblings by working as a bag boy at a grocery store.  Or that at age 12, he was forced to sell drugs in local crack houses to pay off his mother’s drug debts and was warned that she would be beaten if he didn’t. In other words, from the time he was a little boy, Gary Rhines never stood a chance....

Congress finally began to reel in some of its longest and most unjust sentences in 2010, when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced a glaring disparity in punishments for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. That should have been good news for inmates like Mr. Rhines, because under the new law, the amount of crack he was convicted of selling no longer triggered a mandatory life sentence. The problem was that the 2010 law applied only to future cases, not past ones.

This is where the First Step Act comes in.  Signed last December by President Trump, it slashed the length of drug sentences — for example, the top mandatory-minimum punishment for a third-strike drug offense is now 25 years rather than life. The law also gave judges more power to reduce individual sentences and authorized $75 million in annual funding for prison programs that will help prepare inmates for release.  Most important, it made the 2010 sentencing law retroactive, which helps the thousands of inmates, like Mr. Rhines, who have been serving absurdly long sentences under a law that Congress itself said was unjust nearly a decade ago.

At Mr. Rhines’s resentencing hearing in July, where he recounted his brutal childhood, Judge Jones noted the painfully slow evolution of America’s criminal-justice system. “It’s taken essentially a quarter century for policymakers to figure out the fundamental unfairness” of those harsh 1980s and 1990s drug laws, the judge said.  He also noted that the trial judge in Mr. Rhines’s case, James McClure, had been frustrated at having his hands tied by the law. “That deprived Mr. Rhines of the determination of a very fair jurist,” Judge Jones said, “who carefully evaluated every case that came before him.” (Judge McClure died in 2010.)

Finally, Judge Jones took note of Mr. Rhines’s self-rehabilitation in an indifferent environment. “Without any hope,” the judge said, “you participated in a number of these programs, which is very impressive to me.”...

The prosecutor on the case requested that the judge resentence Mr. Rhines to 30 years, which was the term recommended under federal sentencing guidelines. Judge Jones declined. “I just don’t know rationally how anybody can contend with the circumstances of this case, including Mr. Rhines’s personal circumstances,” the judge said, and conclude “that they warrant a 30-year sentence for 66.6 grams of cocaine. That defies credulity and logic, in my view.” In an email further explaining his decision, Judge Jones told me that he considered Mr. Rhines to be “the very face of the First Step Act” and said it was “unjust, and in fact ludicrous, to have this model inmate spend additional time in federal prison.”

As of August, nearly 1,700 people, 91 percent of them black like Mr. Rhines, have gotten new, shorter sentences under the First Step Act, according to a report by the United States Sentencing Commission. The average reduction is nearly six years, bringing the average sentence of these inmates down from about 20 years to 15 — hardly flinging open the prison gates. But it is part of the larger shift toward a more humane criminal-justice system that has swept the country over the past decade and helped shrink the federal prison population to about 180,000 today, from a high of 220,000 in 2013.

This is real progress, and it is why the First Step Act has been praised as a rare bipartisan success story — one all the more remarkable for the political delicacy of its subject matter.  Mr. Trump himself called the older drug sentences “very unfair,” particularly to black inmates like Mr. Rhines.

Still, the law comes up short in important ways. The biggest is that its new reductions of sentences for drug crimes do not apply to past cases. That’s an especially glaring omission given that the First Step Act fixed the identical problem in the 2010 law. In other words, Congress failed to heed its own lesson: If a sentence is determined to be unjust, isn’t it unjust in all situations? Why should it matter when a prisoner was convicted?

This well-told story helps put some more names and faces to what the FIRST STEP Act has helped achieved.  But the piece also highlights just how far we still have to go to truly achieve new attitudes and new approaches to crime and punishment.  I cannot help but still see dark facts in this often bright story: the dark fact that federal prosecutors in 2019 still urged an additional dozen years in federal prison for the sale of less than 2.5 ounces of crack, the dark fact that Congress could not bring itself to include at least modest measure of retroactivity with its modest reforms of extreme mandatory minimums in the FIRST STEP Act, and the dark fact that there are so many human variations on Mr. Rhimes among the tens of thousands of federal prisoners whose stories will not get so well told.

September 16, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

USA Today starts series on non-violent lifers

Eileen Rivers has this new lengthy piece in USA Today, which notes that this is "the first installment in a series about prisoners serving life sentences for non-violent crimes ... being published in conjunction with the Buried Alive Project."  This first piece is fully titled "The graying of America's prisons: 'When is enough enough?'" and "Inmates over 55 are among the fastest growing population. They burden prisons and taxpayers, but pose the lowest threat to society."  Here is an excerpt:

In 1990, a federal judge sentenced [Wayne] Pray to life in prison without parole, plus three 25-year stints for, among other things, cocaine and marijuana possession and distribution.

Now 71, Pray has been locked up for three decades on nonviolent offenses, most recently at the federal prison in Otisville, New York.  He is one of about 20,000 older federal inmates — prisoners over 55 who are among the fastest growing population in the federal system. Many of them were given life amid the war on drugs of the 1990s.

Mandatory life sentences mean a federal prison population that is graying in large numbers.  This group puts the greatest financial burden on U.S. prisons, while posing the lowest threat to American society.

Pray's status, and that of others aging in the system, presents tough questions: How old is too old to remain incarcerated? Is Pray, at 71, the same threat he was at 41?  And if he isn't, then why is he still behind bars?...

From 1993 to 1996, nearly 800 drug offenders were sentenced to life without parole in federal prison, according to the Buried Alive Project, which tracks rates by year and state.  That's 57% higher than during the previous four-year period.

Prosecutors wield a lot of power when it comes to sentencing. It isn't uncommon for attorneys to push plea deals on defendants in exchange for information.  And the rejection of those deals sometimes means elevated charges that result in mandatory minimum federal sentences, including life....

While the First Step Act, passed by Congress last year, changes mandatory minimums for some federal offenders, not all will be helped by it, including inmates such as Pray who were convicted in cases involving powder cocaine instead of crack....

Pray says his brother started selling drugs at age 14 and was dead by 31. Court documents show that Pray was dealing by the time he was in his late 20s.  He used drug money to open up other businesses, according to Coleman. Pray says at one point he owned two used car dealerships and was a fight promoter.  "The lifestyle itself becomes addictive," Pray says.

The charges that led to his life sentence involved more than 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of cocaine and about 200 pounds of pot.  He maintains that the "kingpin" charge was trumped up, the result of a rejected plea deal. Prosecutors wanted information about other people, including politicians, that Pray says he refused to give....

Pray has applied for clemency twice to no avail.  Yet he still holds out hope that he'll be able to spend his final days with his family....  "I'm not trying to justify what I did. But let the punishment fit the crime," Pray said during our phone interview. "When is enough enough?"

September 4, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 16, 2019

Billionaire behind victims' rights reforms now prompting another kind of criminal justice change in Nevada after cutting sweet plea deal for his drug offenses

Last year I noted in this post the remarkable criminal justice story of Henry Nicholas, the tech billionaire who has pushed Marsy's Law reforms around the nation, upon his arrest at a Las Vegas Strip casino-resort on suspicion of trafficking heroin, cocaine, meth and ecstasy.  A helpful former student made sure I saw this new press article, headlined "Public defenders to use generous plea deal offered to billionaire Henry Nicholas as model for future plea deal requests," which details how the Nichols case is now having a remarkable ripple though the local criminal justice system.  Here is the latest chapter in this fascinating story:

Starting next week, public defenders in Clark County plan to directly invoke and ask prosecutors to grant terms similar to the generous plea deal offered to tech billionaire Henry Nicholas for criminal cases with indigent defendants.  According to documents shared with The Nevada Independent, attorneys in the Clark County public defender’s office have drafted a plan to begin filing motions in criminal cases seeking similar treatment offered to Nicholas by Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson’s office.

Civil justice advocates and some Democratic lawmakers cried foul after Wolfson’s office announced a plea deal with Nicholas, after he and a woman (Ashley Fargo) were arrested in Las Vegas last year and charged with several counts of felony drug trafficking.  The deal will see the two avoid prison time, go on informal probation, perform 250 hours of community service, attend regular drug counseling sessions and each make a $500,000 contribution to drug counseling programs in Clark County.

Public defenders in Clark County plan to begin filing motions in District and Justice courts that draw a direct comparison to the plea deal reached with Nicholas and the treatment of indigent defendants, including asking for a reduction in sentence, own recognizance release and a contribution of 0.0128 percent of their net worth — the same percentage of Nicholas’s net worth that he agreed to pay as part of his plea deal.  “Billionaire Defendant Nicholas and Defendant XXX are similarly situated and should be similarly treated by the prosecution and the courts,” the draft motion states. “The primary difference between the two men is that Billionaire Defendant Nicholas is wealthy, while Defendant XXX is not.”

The office has also drafted a form motion asking a District Court judge to recuse the district attorney’s office, for use in potential future criminal cases where prosecutors offer a less-generous plea deal than the one offered to Nicholas and that states the “appearance of impropriety and unfairness” so erodes the public trust that appointment of a special prosecutor is warranted.  “The appearance of impropriety and the bias is most obviously seen in the overly harsh plea bargain the State has offered the indigent defendant versus the sweetheart deal afforded the Billionaire Defendant Nicholas,” the draft motion states. “In this case, it seems clear that the criminal justice system, wealth rather than culpability shaped the outcome.”

The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the planned filings.

Nicholas is the co-founder and former CEO of Broadcom Corporation, with an estimated net worth of $3.8 billion. After leaving Broadcom in 2003, he has poured millions of dollars into passing ballot measures in multiple states (including Nevada) to add a “victim’s bill of rights” called Marsy’s Law to individual state constitutions.  Wolfson appeared in television ads supporting the ballot question in the run-up to the 2018 election.

Nicholas and Fargo — the ex-wife of Brian Fargo, an heir to the Wells Fargo bank fortune — were arrested in Las Vegas in August of 2018 on suspicion of drug trafficking after police found multiple drugs including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy in their hotel room.  According to a police report, Nichols alerted hotel security at the Encore after he had difficulty opening the door to his hotel room and became concerned about the welfare of Fargo.  Police entered the room and found Fargo unresponsive with a semi-deflated balloon in her mouth, used to recreationally ingest nitrous-oxide (commonly known as whippets or poppers).  Police also reported finding 96 grams of methamphetamine, 4.24 grams of heroin, 15.13 grams of cocaine, and 17.1 grams of psilocin in the hotel room....

Nicholas was previously indicted on federal drug charges in 2008, but the charges were dropped in 2010.  He is scheduled to enter the plea deal, which must be accepted by a judge, on August 28.

I have long said in a variety of settings that advocates of criminal justice reforms out to utilize strategically, rather than complain loudly about, the lenient treatment often afforded more privileged criminal defendants.  Thus, I am quite pleased to see this clever effort by the Clark County public defender's office to try to get all of their less privileged defendants the Nichols treatment.

Prior related post:

August 16, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Another round of great new Quick Facts publications from US Sentencing Commission

I am always eager to praise the US Sentencing Commission for continuing to produce a steady stream of its insightful little data documents in its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications ( (which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format"). And I have recently seen that there are a number of new Quick Facts on a lot of major federal sentencing topics based on the USSC's recently released 2018 fiscal year data. Here are some these newer publications:

Drugs

Firearms

Offender Groups

August 1, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The long legacy of drug wars: Eighth Circuit panel affirms LWOP sentence for drug dealer as reasonable

As long-time readers likely realize, I do not blog much these days about how federal circuit courts are conducting reasonableness review of sentences — largely because there are precious few cases in which circuit judges seriously question (or even seriously engage with) the sentencing judgments of district courts.  A helpful reader alerted me to a reasonableness review decision from the Eighth Circuit today which provides another example of how disinclined circuit courts are to question even the most extreme prison sentences.

US v. Duke, No. 18-1371 (8th Cir. July 310, 2019) (available here), involves the appeal after a resentencing of a man originally sentenced three decades ago.  Back then, arguably at the height of the modern drug war, "Ralph Duke was sentenced in 1990 to a term of life imprisonment plus forty years for committing several serious drug trafficking and firearms offenses."   Here is a description of Duke's crimes from this latest opinion:

Duke controlled all phases of a drug trafficking organization in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area from 1984 through June 1989.  He purchased cocaine primarily from a Colombian-affiliated source in Houston or from sources in Los Angeles.  The cocaine was transported to Minnesota in vehicles owned by Duke and driven by younger members of his drug trafficking organization.  Duke then distributed kilograms of cocaine to dealers for resale at the street level in smaller quantities.  Duke laundered the proceeds of drug sales by purchasing homes and cars in the names of others.  All told, Duke and his organization trafficked over fifty kilograms of cocaine before law enforcement interrupted their operations.  When Duke was apprehended in May 1989, officers found two loaded handguns in his bedroom and two assault shotguns and two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles in his residence.  The government charged at least twenty-five people as a result of the investigation of Duke’s organization. 

In other words, Duke was a big-time drug dealer in the 1980s, though it does not appear that he was actively involved in any violent activities or that his case involved other aggravating factors (though I suppose he might be called a drug kingpin).  But back in the 1990s, when the drug war was ranging and the federal sentencing guidelines were mandatory, perhaps it is not surprising that the federal district judge originally imposed an LWOP sentence on Duke.

But fast forward nearly 30 years, and Duke had the chance to benefit from a full resentencing in 2018 due to various legal developments.  Circa 2018, the federal sentencing guidelines were now advisory and, according to Duke, a lower sentence was justified in light of his "exceptional institutional conduct over the last 29 years, lack of criminal history, age, medical history, family ties, rehabilitation, remorse, and low risk of recidivism."  But the same federal district judge was unmoved and decided to give Duke an LWOP sentence yet again.  And the Eighth Circuit panel, in the ruling linked above, decided this LWOP sentence was reasonable.

When Booker was first decided and circuit courts were tasked with reasonableness review based on 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), I had sincerely hoped appellate judges would come to embrace the task of ensuring sentences were "not greater than necessary to comply with the purposes set forth" by Congress.  But it became all too clear all too quickly that all too few circuit judges were eager to rigorously review long prison sentences, especially if those sentences fell within calculated guideline ranges.  Years later, even with mass incarceration and long sentences for drug offenses subject to considerable criticism, we still see federal judges finding no problem with giving a "death-in-prison" sentence based on drug dealing many decades ago.

July 31, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 29, 2019

Will criminal justice reform take on a bigger role in round two of the 2020 Democratic Prez candidate debates?

190717174548-cnn-democratic-presidential-debate-large-169The next round of debates among the Democratic candidates eager to take on Prez Trump in Nov 2020 takes place this week in Detroit (and this local article provides a partial review and preview of the candidates).  I have an inkling that Prez Trump's varied attacks on various Democratic members of Congress may take up a lot of the conversation, but I am of course hoping that we get more focus on criminal justice reform issues.  For various reasons, I think we might.

For starters, federal criminal justice developments have been in the news quite a bit of late.  Two weeks ago, we had the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act kick into a new gear (basics here), and last week Attorney General William Barr announced a change in the federal execution protocol and the scheduling of five federal executions (basics here).  These developments certainly could justify a focused question ("Will you pledge to commute all federal death sentences as Prez?") or general question ("What should be prioritized in the NEXT STEP Act?") on federal criminal justice reforms.

In addition, a number prominent candidates, in particular Joe Biden, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigeig, have put forth major criminal justice reform plans in recent weeks.  These candidates now have developed positions and "talking points" on various criminal justice reform topics, and they may be interested in bring up their plans in more general discussions to highlight their priorities.

And speaking of Joe Biden, it is possible that some of his competitors might think that he can be attacked based on his past role in various federal laws that are now the subject of much justified criticism.  With Biden seemingly still the front-runner, there might be an interest in bringing up his criminal justice reform past.  This new lengthy Washington Post article, headlined "How an early Biden crime bill created the sentencing disparity for crack and cocaine trafficking," certainly tees up one possible line of attack.  Here is an excerpt:

As he makes another bid for the White House, Biden, now 76, is facing criticism over his past advocacy for tough-on-crime policies, particularly his authorship of the 1994 omnibus anti-crime law that is blamed for accelerating incarceration rates, especially of black men.  One of his Democratic rivals, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, last week said that the law “inflicted immeasurable harm on black, brown, and low-income communities.”  Booker is expected to raise the issue again before a national audience during this week’s primary debate.

Biden’s role in passing the lesser-known 1986 law and creating the crack-powder disparity reveals how he grappled with policies years earlier that would affect the black community.  The episode could further complicate his ongoing struggle to reconcile his decades-long record with changing political and societal norms....

An examination of Biden’s work on a half-dozen criminal justice bills found that his legislation included liberal priorities but also broadly served to push federal criminal policy to the right in response to a surge of violent crime.  Biden’s language and policy positions were mainstream for Democrats at the time, reflecting a political consensus around tough-on-crime policies during the crime wave that began in the 1970s and efforts by many in the party to assert a more centrist image.

Critics now say those policies helped fuel incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system — and are calling on Biden to take responsibility for his part....

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act authorized more than $1 billion for drug enforcement, education and treatment programs.  But one of its most consequential provisions was the “100-1” rule, so named because it required a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for trafficking in 500 grams of powder cocaine or five grams of crack.

Though Biden took responsibility for the formula in 2002, it is unclear exactly how it came to be part of his bill.  The ratio was more aggressive than proposals from either the Reagan administration, which sought a “20-1” rule, or House Democrats, who held the majority and sought a “50-1” rule, but less aggressive than the “1,000-1” ratio proposed by Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), the co-chairman of Biden’s working group.

The process had turned into a political “bidding war” between Republicans and Democrats, who were courting fearful voters ahead of the 1986 elections, said Eric Sterling, a former House Democratic staffer who worked on the 50-1 proposal.

No experts recommended a 100-1 ratio, said Sterling, now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a drug policy and criminal justice reform group, who said he regrets working on the House proposal.  “Biden was the lead anti-drug guy among the Democrats.  As ranking member, he had critical sign-off authority on legislation.  A lot of these concerns about the 100-to-1 ratio really are questions that Biden needs to answer for,” Sterling said in an interview this month.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

July 29, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Spotlighting how some federal prosecutors are pushing back on some applications of FIRST STEP Act crack retroactivity

Reuters has this notable and lengthy new article on some skirmishes over the crack sentencing retroactivity piece of the FIRST STEP Act under the headline "As new U.S. law frees inmates, prosecutors seek to lock some back up." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Monae Davis walked out of prison on March 7, thanks to a new law that eased some of the harshest aspects of the United States’ war on drugs.  Now the U.S. Justice Department is trying to lock him back up.

As Davis, 44, looks for work and re-connects with his family, U.S. prosecutors are working to undo a federal judge’s decision that shaved six years off his 20-year prison sentence under the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal-justice reform signed into law by President Donald Trump last December.  “They’re prosecutors — it’s their job to make it hard on people,” he said. “Do I think it is right? No, it’s not fair.”

Even as thousands of prison inmates have been released by judges under the new law, federal prosecutors have fought scores of petitions for reduced sentences and are threatening to put more than a dozen inmates already released back behind bars, Reuters found in an analysis of these cases.  The reason: the Justice Department says the amount of drugs they handled was too large to qualify for a reduced sentence.

Davis, for example, reached a deal in 2009 with U.S. attorneys in western New York to plead guilty to selling 50 grams or more of crack, resulting in his 20-year sentence.  Under First Step guidelines, that carries a minimum sentence of five years, less than half the time he has already served.  But prosecutors say Davis should not get a break, because in his plea deal he admitted to handling between 1.5 kilograms and 4.5 kilograms, which even under current guidelines is too high to qualify for a sentence reduction.

In a statement, the Justice Department said it is trying to ensure that prisoners seeking relief under the First Step Act aren’t treated more leniently than defendants now facing prosecution.  The department said prosecutors now have a greater incentive than previously to bring charges that more closely reflect the total amount of drugs they believe to be involved. “This is a fairness issue,” the department said....

More than 1,100 inmates have been released so far under this [Fair Sentencing Act retroactivity] provision in the new law, according to the Justice Department. (Another 3,100 here are being released under a separate provision that awards time off for good conduct.)

In most of the 1,100 sentence-reduction cases, U.S. prosecutors did not oppose the inmate’s release. But in at least 81 cases, Reuters found, Justice Department lawyers have tried — largely unsuccessfully so far — to keep offenders behind bars. They argue that judges should base their decision on the total amount of drugs that were found to be involved during the investigation, rather than the often smaller or more vague amount laid out in the law they violated years ago.

The difference between the two amounts in these cases is often significant — and, depending on whether a judge agrees with prosecutors’ objections, can mean years of continued incarceration rather than immediate release.

Regional prosecutors’ offices, though they often enjoy great autonomy, have made it clear that they are operating on instructions from Washington. One prosecutor in western Virginia in April objected to nine sentence reductions she had previously not opposed, citing Justice Department guidelines.

The federal government has lost 73 of 81 cases in which the issue has arisen so far, according to the Reuters analysis. Prosecutors have appealed at least three of those decisions and indicated they intend to appeal 12 more. If they succeed, men like Davis would return to prison.

First Step Act advocates say the Justice Department is undercutting the intent of the law. “Many of these people have served in prison for five, 10, 15, 20 years and more. It’s time for them to be able to get on with their lives, and the notion the Department of Justice is just going to keep nagging at them and appealing these cases is not what we ever had in mind,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, one of the law’s authors, told Reuters.

July 23, 2019 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 (5)

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Two notable new stories of marijuana's still notable criminal justice footprint

Throughout most of the Unites States, millions of Americans are able to "legally" buy and sell marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.  (Of course, I put "legally" in quotes because all these activities are violations of federal law, but the laws and practices of states and localities define enforcement realities.)  Given all the "legal" marijuana activity, it can be dangerously easy to forget that the criminalization of marijuana is still a significant criminal justice reality for a significant number of individuals.  But these two new stories about arrests in two states provides an important reminder of this reality:

From the Washington Post, "Marijuana arrests in Va. reach highest level in at least 20 years, spurring calls for reform."  An excerpt: 

Nearly 29,000 arrests were made for marijuana offenses in Virginia last year, a number that has tripled since 1999, according to an annual crime report compiled by the Virginia State Police. Marijuana busts account for nearly 60 percent of drug arrests across Virginia and more than half of them were among people who were under 24, according to the data. The vast majority of cases involved simple possession of marijuana....

The Virginia Crime Commission found that 46 percent of those arrested for a first offense for possession of marijuana between 2007 and 2016 were African Americans, who represent about only 20 percent of Virginia’s population....

In Virginia, a first conviction for possessing marijuana is a misdemeanor that can result in up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Subsequent arrests can result in up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. A defendant’s driver’s license is also revoked for six months for a drug conviction. The Virginia Crime Commission study found that only 31 people were in jail in July 2017 solely for a conviction of possessing marijuana in the state. The libertarian Cato Institute estimated Virginia spent $81 million on marijuana enforcement in 2016.

From Wisconsin Watch, "Blacks arrested for pot possession at four times the rate of whites in Wisconsin." An excerpt:

Almost 15,000 adults in Wisconsin were arrested in 2018 for marijuana possession, a 3% increase from 2017, according to data from the state Department of Justice.  Prison admissions in Wisconsin for marijuana also were higher in 2016 for black individuals than for whites, according to the state Department of Corrections. Some experts believe this disparity can be attributed to policing practices in low-income neighborhoods that tend to have more residents of color....

Under state law, possession of marijuana of any amount for a first-time offense can lead to up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Any offense after that is classified as a felony and can result in a sentence of three and a half years in prison with a maximum fine of $10,000. 

I want to believe that recently increases in marijuana arrests are mostly a product of increased marijuana activity and not an extra focus on marijuana enforcement. But whatever the reason, I sincerely wonder if anyone sincerely believes that all of the time, money and energy expended for all these marijuana arrests serves to enhance justice or safety in these jurisdictions.

Cross-posed at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

July 20, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Fascinating Fourth Circuit en banc debate over constitutional challenges to Virginia's "habitual drunkard" law

A helpful colleague made sure I saw the Fourth Circuit's split en banc ruling yesterday in Manning v. Caldwell,  No. 17-1320 (4th Cir. July 16, 2019) (available here), concerning a lawsuit challenging a peculiar Virginia law.  This AP article summarizes the ruling and provides helpful context:

A lawsuit challenging an unusual Virginia law that allows police to arrest and jail people designated as “habitual drunkards” was reinstated Tuesday by a deeply divided federal appeals court. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the challenge to Virginia’s so-called interdiction law can move forward.

The court voted 8-7 to allow the lawsuit to proceed, finding that Virginia’s law is unconstitutionally vague. The ruling from the full court reverses earlier rulings from a judge and a three-judge panel dismissing the lawsuit.

The Legal Aid Justice Center argues that the law targets homeless alcoholics and violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Virginia attorney general’s office, in defending the law, argues that the state has a legitimate interest in discouraging alcohol and drug abuse.

The law allows prosecutors to ask a civil judge to declare someone a “habitual drunkard.”  Police can then arrest that person for being publicly intoxicated, possessing alcohol or even smelling of alcohol.  Violators face up to a year in jail.

In its written opinion, the court found that the law does not give homeless people who struggle with alcohol fair notice under the law.  “While necessary changes in the law may not alter the choices that they make or enhance the quality of their life, at least the government will not be compounding their problems by subjecting them to incarceration based on the arbitrary enforcement of ambiguous laws or, at best, the targeted criminalization of their illnesses,” Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Barbara Milano Keenan wrote for the majority.

During arguments before the 4th Circuit in January, an attorney representing people designated as “habitual drunkards” argued that the law criminalizes addiction by targeting people who are compelled to drink because they are alcoholics and are forced to drink in public because they are homeless.  People without the habitual-drunkard designation can also be arrested for public intoxication, but they don’t face any jail time.

In a strongly worded dissenting opinion, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III chastised the majority for asking the court to find “that addiction gives rise to an Eighth Amendment right to abuse dangerous substances without the imposition of any criminal sanctions.”

“As my colleagues apparently see it, consuming alcohol, even by those with a documented history of alcohol abuse, is just not the sort of conduct that warrants criminal sanctions. Given the comprehensive body of research pointing to the harms of alcohol abuse, I cannot agree,” Wilkinson wrote....

Virginia and Utah are the only two states with interdiction laws that make it a crime for people designated as habitual drunkards to possess, consume or purchase alcohol, or even attempt to do so, according to a survey of state laws done by the legal aid center.

The full opinion runs 83 pages, so I will need some time to assess whether it is as consequential a ruling as the dissent seemingly fears. But folks who follow the intersection of criminal justice and public health will surely want to check this one out.

July 17, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Following his conviction on all counts, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán receives an LWOP (plus 30 years!) federal sentence

As reported in this USA Today piece, "drug lord Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán Loera was formally sentenced Wednesday to life in prison plus 30 years on drug trafficking and weapons charges." Here is more:

Guzmán, 62, a leader of Mexico's Sinaloa narcotics cartel, briefly spoke at the hearing, claiming his trial was "stained" by juror misconduct.

U.S. District Court Judge Brian Cogan imposed the sentence amid bomb-sniffing dogs, automatic rifle-toting agents and other extra security measures at the Brooklyn federal courthouse. Guzman, who wore a gray suit to the proceedings, has a history of complex and spectacular escapes from Mexican jails.

Guzman was also ordered to forfeit $12,666,191,704 based on the quantity and the value of the drugs in his crimes. There were no details available on how much, if any, money is actually available.

Guzmán, who did not testify in his own defense during the trial, complained to the judge Wednesday about conditions in jail, saying the water was unsanitary and that he was denied sufficient access to his wife and young daughters.

Defense lawyers have signaled that they plan to appeal the conviction, as well as Cogan's recent denial of a motion for an evidentiary hearing and new trial based on what they viewed as potential evidence of misconduct.

“My case was stained and you denied me a fair trial when the whole world was watching,” Guzman said in court through an interpreter. “When I was extradited to the United States, I expected to have a fair trial, but what happened was exactly the opposite.”

In a sentencing letter filed last week, prosecutors reiterated that life behind bars is the mandatory punishment for one of the crimes on which a federal jury found Guzmán guilty five months ago. The case has drawn international attention, and the line to get into the proceeding started forming Tuesday. By dawn on Wednesday, more than 50 media representatives and spectators lined the sidewalk outside the courthouse.

Guzmán is best known as a former leader of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel who gained fame by twice breaking out of high-security prisons in his native country – a feat he has thus far been unable to replicate in the U.S. Depending on U.S. Bureau of Prisons decisions, he could be sent to the so-called Alcatraz of the Rockies, the "administrative maximum" prison in Florence, Colorado. There he would join, but likely never meet, fellow inmates such as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols.

Guzmán's nearly 12-week trial ended in February with a jury of eight women and four men finding the defendant guilty on all counts during the sixth day of deliberations. The charges against Guzmán included drug trafficking and weapons counts stemming from his leadership role in the cartel's smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs into major U.S. cities during a criminal career that stretched for decades....

The guilty verdict on the charge he engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise mandated a life prison term because of the jury's separate guilty votes on three sentencing enhancements. In a legal quirk, Guzmán's conviction for unlawful use of a machine gun in tandem with the drug crimes means he also faces the mandatory but likely unnecessary 30-year sentence that must run consecutively with the life term.

The sentencing seemingly marks an official end of Guzmán's reign as one of the world's most notorious drug lords, though his more than two years in solitary confinement in U.S. jails before the conviction had already removed him from the narcotics trafficking fray.

By many accounts, however, the Sinaloa cartel continues to thrive as it competes with other international drug trafficking organizations and diversifies into other businesses.

July 17, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 05, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"Most US drug arrests involve a gram or less"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Friday, June 07, 2019

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

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

Summary

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

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

Data Highlights [FN1]

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Spotlighting how federal drug prosecution patterns have changed in recent years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

April 18, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

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

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Kansas doctor gets federal LWOP sentence for abusive opioid prescribing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 07, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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