Wednesday, September 21, 2022

House Judiciary Committee advances a number of federal criminal justice bills

As well reported in this lengthy new Marijuana Moment piece, "Congressional Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Record Sealing And Other Drug Policy Bills In Key Committee," today brought some notable action in the US House of Representatives on some criminal justice matters.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts :

A key House committee has approved a series of criminal justice reform bills—including bipartisan proposals to clear records for prior federal marijuana convictions, provide funding for states that implement systems of automatic expungements and codify retroactive relief for people incarcerated due to on crack-cocaine sentencing disparities.

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), advanced the measures, as well as other bills unrelated to drug policy, during a hearing on Wednesday.... Nadler, speaking about a bill to provide funding to states for expungement purposes, stressed that “even just an arrest can present lifetime barriers to obtaining jobs, housing, education and put other opportunities out of reach.”

“Criminal record expungement and sealing is a pathway to employment opportunities for individuals with a criminal record and enable them to participate fully in their communities at a time when many industries continue to face labor shortages,” the chairman said. “These pathways that desperately needed.”

The congressman also voiced support for the federal cannabis record sealing bill, saying it is “critical in helping those with non-violent criminal records to rebuild their lives.” He added that the public is on board with the reform, as well as major employers who’ve endorsed the legislation such as J.P. Morgan Chase and Walmart.

Here’s a rundown of what the committee-approved bills would accomplish:

HR 2864: The “Clean Slate Act” from Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) would mandate the automatic sealing of criminal records for certain non-violent, federal marijuana convictions. It would also provide relief to people who have been arrested for other offenses that did not result in a conviction....

HR 5651: The “Fresh Start Act” sponsored by Rep. David Trone (D-MD) would provide federal funding to states that create their own systems of automated expungements.  Though it does not specify the types of crimes that would warrant relief, a growing number of states are taking steps to implement systems of automatic expungement for marijuana convictions, and those states would benefit from the new funding....

HR 5455: The “Terry Technical Correction Act” from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is responsive to a 2021 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that a law reducing the federal crack-cocaine sentencing disparity did not apply retroactively in cases that did not trigger a mandatory minimum sentence.

It would amend the law by clarifying that the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act was intended to provide individuals in those cases with relief, and so any motion that was denied on the basis of a court’s interpretation of eligibility under the statute “shall not be considered a denial after a complete review of the motion on the merits within the meaning of this section.”...

The crack-cocaine sentencing bill from Jackson Lee enjoyed some bipartisan support in the committee, with Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-OH) speaking in favor of the legislation ahead of the vote. He stressed that it was a necessary reform to align the law with congressional intent.

Republican members generally balked at the state expungements and federal record sealing proposals, however, arguing that they amount to “soft on crime” policies.

September 21, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 19, 2022

Interesting report on the echoes of the Supreme Court's recent Ruan decision

As noted in this post last week, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has this great panel discussion scheduled for tomorrow to discuss various aspects of the Supreme Court's work last term in Ruan v. United States.  (Folks can and should register here for this event.)  Coincidently, CBS News has this lengthy new piece discussing the case's impact under the headline "Doctors rush to use Supreme Court ruling to escape opioid charges."  Here are excerpts:

Dr. Nelson Onaro conceded last summer that he'd written illegal prescriptions, although he said he was thinking only of his patients. From a tiny, brick clinic in Oklahoma, he doled out hundreds of opioid pills and dozens of fentanyl patches with no legitimate medical purpose. "Those medications were prescribed to help my patients, from my own point of view," Onaro said in court, as he reluctantly pleaded guilty to six counts of drug dealing. Because he confessed, the doctor was likely to get a reduced sentence of three years or less in prison.

But Onaro changed his mind in July. In the days before his sentencing, he asked a federal judge to throw out his plea deal, sending his case toward a trial. For a chance at exoneration, he'd face four times the charges and the possibility of a harsher sentence.

Why take the risk? A Supreme Court ruling has raised the bar to convict in a case like Onaro's. In a June decision, the court said prosecutors must not only prove a prescription was not medically justified ― possibly because it was too large or dangerous, or simply unnecessary ― but also that the prescriber knew as much. Suddenly, Onaro's state of mind carries more weight in court. Prosecutors have not opposed the doctor withdrawing his plea to most of his charges, conceding in a court filing that he faces "a different legal calculus" after the Supreme Court decision.

The court's unanimous ruling complicates the Department of Justice's ongoing efforts to hold irresponsible prescribers criminally liable for fueling the opioid crisis. Previously, lower courts had not considered a prescriber's intention. Until now, doctors on trial largely could not defend themselves by arguing they were acting in good faith when they wrote bad prescriptions. Now they can, attorneys say, although it is not necessarily a get-out-of-jail-free card. "Essentially, the doctors were handcuffed," said Zach Enlow, Onaro's attorney. "Now they can take off their handcuffs. But it doesn't mean they are going to win the fight."

The Supreme Court's decision in Ruan v. United States, issued June 27, was overshadowed by the nation-shaking controversy ignited three days earlier, when the court erased federal abortion rights. But the lesser-known ruling is now quietly percolating through federal courthouses, where it has emboldened defendants in overprescribing cases and may have a chilling effect on future prosecutions of doctors under the Controlled Substances Act.

In the three months since it was issued, the Ruan decision has been invoked in at least 15 ongoing prosecutions across 10 states, according to a KHN review of federal court records. Doctors cited the decision in post-conviction appeals, motions for acquittals, new trials, plea reversals, and a failed attempt to exclude the testimony of a prescribing expert, arguing their opinion was now irrelevant. Other defendants have successfully petitioned to delay their cases so the Ruan decision could be folded into their arguments at upcoming trials or sentencing hearings.

David Rivera, a former Obama-era U.S. attorney who once led overprescribing prosecutions in Middle Tennessee, said he believes doctors have a "great chance" of overturning convictions if they were prohibited from arguing a good faith defense or a jury was instructed to ignore one. Rivera said defendants who ran true pill mills would still be convicted, even if a second trial was ultimately required. But the Supreme Court has extended a "lifeline" to a narrow group of defendants who "dispensed with their heart, not their mind," he said.

"What the Supreme Court is trying to do is divide between a bad doctor and a person who might have a license to practice medicine but is not acting as a doctor at all and is a drug dealer," Rivera said. "A doctor who is acting under a sincerely held belief that he is doing the right thing, even if he may be horrible at his job and should not be trusted with human lives ― that's still not criminal."...

To defense attorneys, the unanimous ruling sent an unambiguous message. "This is a hyperpolarized time in America, and particularly on the court," Enlow said. "And yet this was a 9-0 ruling saying that the mens rea ― or the mental state of the doctor ― it matters."

Some prior related posts:

September 19, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 12, 2022

"Ruan v. United States: Implications for Criminal Law, Health Care, and Beyond"

606e9d1f-2ef6-49f0-bbd7-fcb1b4ce9f73The title of this post is the title of this great panel discussion hosted by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law which is scheduled for midday on Tuesday, September 20.  Folks can and should register here for this event, which is described this way on this event page:

What must prosecutors prove about a defendant’s mental state in order to convict them of unauthorized distribution of controlled substances under federal drug laws?  In the case of Ruan v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the Government must prove the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner.  But because the defendants in this case were medical doctors involved in questionable opioid prescribing practices, the case has generated an array of public policy questions.  The Government, stressing opioid overdose deaths and the broad harms of the opioid epidemic, argued the law should be interpreted to apply an objective standard for criminal liability.  The doctors, and many amici briefs, argued that an objective standard could criminalize merely careless prescribing and could deter responsible doctors from trying any novel medical therapies that had not yet been accepted by traditional medical practice.

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and our panel of experts as they discuss the doctrines and broader policies involved in the Ruan case and the implications for criminal law and beyond.

Panelists:

  • Douglas A. Berman, Newton D. Baker-Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law; Executive Director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center
  • Kelly Dineen, Associate Professor of Law, Director of the Health Law Program, Creighton University School of Law
  • Martin Fried, Clinical Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, Wexner Medical Center, The Ohio State University
  • Jennifer Oliva, Professor of Law, UC Hastings Law

Moderator:

Patricia Zettler, Associate Professor of Law, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

September 12, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 15, 2022

Call for Papers: "Drugs and Public Safety: Exploring the Impact of Policy, Policing, and Prosecutorial Reforms"

Drugs-and-Public-Safety_for-social_draft-for-review_corrected-1800x1005I am pleased to highlight a new call for papers relating to an exciting event I am excited to be involved in helping to plan, "Drugs and Public Safety Exploring the Impact of Policy, Policing, and Prosecutorial Reforms." Here is the full call, which is available in full at this link:

The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University and the Academy for Justice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University are organizing a symposium titled “Drugs and Public Safety: Exploring the Impact of Policy, Policing, and Prosecutorial Reforms” to examine the public safety impact of marijuana and other modern drug policy reforms.  The conference is committed to exploring, from a variety of perspectives and with the help of a variety of voices, how to better understand and assess the relationship between drug reforms (broadly defined, including clemency policy and criminal justice reform) and public safety (broadly defined, with an emphasis on violent and serious crime).  [The conference will take place at Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ from March 14-16, 2022.]

Background

In 1996, California kicked off a new state-driven law reform era through a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana.  In subsequent decades, as dozens of states legalized marijuana use, various advocates, public officials, and researchers warned about the possibility of dire public safety consequences.  More drug crimes, more general criminality, more drugged driving, and all sorts of other public safety harms were often mentioned as the possible short- or long-term consequence of significant state-level marijuana reforms.

As of summer 2022, there are 37 states with robust medical marijuana regimes and 19 with full adult-use marijuana programs.  The continued support for state-level marijuana reforms seems to reflect, at least in part, the fact that so far, researchers have not documented direct connections between marijuana reforms and adverse public safety outcomes.  Though crime is a growing public concern given the rise in violent crimes in recent years, few advocates or researchers have documented clear connections or correlations between jurisdictions that have reformed their marijuana laws and increases in crimes.

As marijuana reforms have spread, so too has discussion of broader drug reforms such as decriminalization or legalization at both state and local level, as well as relief from drug-war excesses through clemency and expungement.  But given the increasing concern about violent crime, many advocates and lawmakers are wondering whether past and possible future drug policy reforms may be advancing or undermining the broad interest in creating safe and stable communities. As the country moves away from marijuana prohibition, a fully informed discussion of drugs, violence, and public safety is needed now more than ever.

Call for Papers

The symposium is soliciting papers from researchers to be included in the scholarship workshop.  Each paper will be assigned a discussant to provide feedback during the workshop.  The papers will be gathered and published in a symposium edition of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, a peer-reviewed publication in Spring of 2024.

Though proposed papers can and should look to explore the relationship between drug reforms and public safety in any number of diverse ways, the conference organizers are particularly interested in explorations of the impact of: (a) legalization of medical and/or adult-use marijuana, (b) drug decriminalization efforts, and (c) back-end relief efforts (e.g., clemency) — on crime and violence, the enforcement of criminal laws, and the operation of criminal justice systems.

Deadlines and Length of Paper

A proposed abstract of no more than 300 words are due on October 17, 2022.  Abstracts can be submitted to Jana Hrdinova at hrdinova.1@osu.edu.

Accepted researchers will be notified by November 18, 2022.

Participants should plan to have a full draft to discuss and circulate by March 1, 2023. Papers may range in length from 10,000 words to 25,000 words.

Final papers for publication will be due on August 1, 2023.

August 15, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 04, 2022

WNBA star Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years(!) in prison by Russian judge for "drug smuggling"

I know next to nothing about Russia's criminal justice system, but I do know I was still shocked to hear about basketball star Brittney Griner's sentencing before a Russian judge today.  This Fox News report provides these details:

Brittney Griner, an American basketball superstar and Olympic gold medalist, learned her hate in a Russian court after she pleaded guilty to a drug charge last month.

A Russian judge convicted Griner of drug possession and drug smuggling and sentenced her to 9 years in prison. She was also fined 1 million rubles, the equivalent of about $16,400.

Griner, 31, appeared in a courtroom in Khimki, just outside Moscow. She issued an apology ahead of her verdict and sentencing as prosecutors pushed for a 9.5-year sentence....

Griner contended she made "an honest mistake" when she brought vape cartridges containing oils derived from cannabis into a Moscow airport back in February, adding "I hope in your ruling it does not end my life." Griner was returning to her Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg after their was a pause in the season for international play. She called Yekaterinburg her "second home."...

Russian prosecutors argued Griner purposely packed the cannabis oil. Griner’s lawyers argued that Griner was using marijuana to treat pain. But Russian officials said the U.S. laws regarding the legality of the drug had no bearing on the Russian judicial system.

The U.S. State Department had classified Griner as "wrongfully detained." United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed last week that the Biden administration offered a "substantial proposal" for the return of the basketball player and fellow American Paul Whelan. Blinken said during a press conference that the Biden administration made the proposal weeks ago and is hoping to speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the first time since Feb. 15.

Russian media has speculated the trade could be for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the "Merchant of Death," who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia made a "bad faith" response to the U.S. government’s offer. She did not elaborate. Russian officials have made clear that no prisoner swap could happen until a conviction and sentence is handed down.

President Biden reacted to Russia’s sentencing. "Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible," he said.

It seems likely that all sorts of politics, both international and domestic, played a role in this sentencing outcome. And I am inclined to predict that Griner will be back on American soil well before 2031. But despite all the international intrigue in play and whatever happens next, the sad reality is that the US in the past (and still today) has sentenced plenty of individuals to many years on various types of drug charges.  And that drug war reality necessarily impacts our nation's ability to assert the moral high ground when it comes to reacting to harsh law enforcement in other nations.

August 4, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, July 15, 2022

New issue brief urges prosecutors to stop pursuing drug-induced homicide charges

The group Fair and Just Prosecution, which brings together and focuses on the work of elected local prosecutors, has this notable new issue brief titled simply "Drug-Induced Homicide Prosecutions." Here is "Summary" found at the start of the 12-page document:

This is one of a series of FJP’s “Issues at a Glance” briefs addressing strategies for improving responses to overdose deaths and incorporating harm reduction approaches into prosecutors’ work.  As prosecutors face the tragedy of rising overdose deaths in their communities, this series of briefs urges them to embrace interventions grounded in the philosophy of harm reduction.  This brief focuses on drug-induced homicide prosecutions.  It describes why they are inherently problematic, while offering more effective, humane, and fiscally responsible alternatives.  It is intended as a guide for prosecutors who are grappling with how to respond effectively to an increased number of overdose deaths in their communities and seeking to do so with evidence-based and compassionate approaches.

“Drug-induced homicide” (DIH) prosecutions – the practice of charging individuals who supply drugs that result in a fatal overdose with homicide, even in the absence of specific intent to cause death — have dramatically increased in the wake of the overdose crisis.  While an estimated 28 individuals faced DIH prosecutions in 2007, close to 700 DIH cases were filed in 2018 based on media reports.  This brief outlines the evidence regarding DIH prosecutions, including their inefficacy in reducing overdoses, the proportionality and racial injustice concerns they raise, and their role in ultimately exacerbating the harms of the overdose crisis.  The brief recommends that prosecutors cease to seek DIH charges absent evidence of specific intent to kill, and delineates more effective approaches that have the potential to save lives.

July 15, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, June 27, 2022

SCOTUS unanimously rejects federal convictions for opioid docs in Ruan, with majority stressing mens rea requirement

Every member of the Supreme Court agreed this morning in Xiulu Ruan v. US, No. 20-1410 (S. Ct. June 27, 2022) (available here), decided that the federal drug distribution convictions of two doctors who prescribed opioids was problematic.  But the Court divided on the rationale, with Justice Breyer writing the opinion for the majority that starts this way:

A provision of the Controlled Substances Act, codified at 21 U.S.C. § 841, makes it a federal crime, “[e]xcept as authorized[,] . . . for any person knowingly or intentionally . . . to manufacture, distribute, or dispense . . . a controlled substance,” such as opioids. 84 Stat. 1260, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) (emphasis added). Registered doctors may prescribe these substances to their patients. But, as provided by regulation, a prescription is only authorized when a doctor issues it “for a legitimate medical purpose . . . acting in the usual course of his professional practice.” 21 CFR §1306.04(a) (2021).

In each of these two consolidated cases, a doctor was convicted under § 841 for dispensing controlled substances not “as authorized.” The question before us concerns the state of mind that the Government must prove to convict these doctors of violating the statute. We hold that the statute’s “knowingly or intentionally” mens rea applies to authorization. After a defendant produces evidence that he or she was authorized to dispense controlled substances, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew that he or she was acting in an unauthorized manner, or intended to do so.

Justice Alito authored a lengthy opinion to concur in the judgment which was joined in full by Justice Thomas and partially by Justice Barrett. Here is how it begins:

In criminal law, the distinction between the elements of an offense and an affirmative defense is well-known and important. In these cases, however, the Court recognizes a new hybrid that has some characteristics of an element and some characteristics of an affirmative defense. The consequences of this innovation are hard to foresee, but the result may well be confusion and disruption. That risk is entirely unnecessary.

We granted certiorari in these cases to decide whether a physician may be convicted of dispensing or distributing drugs by prescription under a provision of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), 21 U.S.C. §841(a), if he or she believed in good faith that the prescription was within the course of professional practice. In my view, there is a straightforward answer to this question. The CSA contains an exception for prescriptions issued in the course of professional practice, and this exception is a carry-over from the CSA’s predecessor, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, 38 Stat. 785. In interpreting the Harrison Act, this Court held that a registered physician acts “in the course of his professional practice” when the physician writes prescriptions “in good faith.” Linder v. United States, 268 U.S. 5, 17–18 (1925). I would hold that this rule applies under the CSA and would therefore vacate the judgments below and remand for further proceedings.

June 27, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Could the EQUAL Act get passed as part of some kind of "omnibus" federal marijuana reform bill?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting Marijuana Moment article headlined "New Details On Congressional Marijuana Omnibus Bill Emerge As Lawmakers Work For 60 Senate Votes."  Here are some of the intriguing particulars from an extended piece worth reading in full:

Two key congressmen made waves in the marijuana community on Thursday by disclosing that there are high-level talks underway about putting together a wide-ranging package of incremental marijuana proposals that House and Senate lawmakers believe could be enacted into law this year.  But multiple sources tell Marijuana Moment that issues under consideration go further than the banking and expungements reforms that were at the center of the public discussion that has emerged.

The dueling pushes for comprehensive legalization and incremental reform — a source of tension among advocates, lawmakers and industry insiders over many months — may actually result in something actionable and bipartisan by the end of the current Congress, those familiar with the bicameral negotiations say.  That said, no deal is set in stone and talks are ongoing.

In addition to the banking and expungements proposals that made waves when discussed publicly at a conference on Thursday by two key House lawmakers, there are also talks about attaching language from other standalone bills dealing with issues such as veterans’ medical cannabis access, research expansion, marijuana industry access to Small Business Administration (SBA) programs and broader drug sentencing reform....

Interestingly enough, a non-marijuana item might also be part of the deal in the works: the EQUAL Act to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which experts say has exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system. That legislation has passed the House in standalone form and has substantial bipartisan support in the Senate. “These talks are very serious,” a source involved in criminal justice reform said. “I would say this is one of the most serious bipartisan, bicameral conversations that we’ve seen occur in our time in this space.”

Given that I am not especially bullish on the likelihood that significant marijuana reform making it through the current Congress, I am not especially keen on the idea of tethering crack sentencing reform to marijuana reform.  But, given that the EQUAL Act seems to be stalled in the Senate (despite more than 10 GOP co-sponsors), maybe this new marijuana talk is good news for the prospects of sentencing reform.  Notably, this recent Hill commentary by Marc Levin, headlined "Bipartisan drug sentencing reform isn’t a pipe dream," argues that the EQUAL Act could still "receive a rare bipartisan embrace."  Whether with a side of weed or on its own, I sure hope the EQUAL Act gets to the desk of the President as soon as possible.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

June 14, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Notable cert petition (and amicus) urges SCOTUS to take up drug quantity calculations review standards

Long-time readers know that I have long complained about how the Supreme Court sets its criminal docket and repeatedly fails to take up many consequential sentencing issues (except in capital and ACCA cases).  But hope springs eternal, and issues needing SCOTUS attention are never ending.  To that end, I want to flag a recent cert petition, which has new amicus support, and is scheduled to be considered by the Justices this week.  The case is Tucker v. United States, No. 21-7769, coming from the DC Circuit, and here is an excerpt from the cert petition:   

A fourth of the federal cases reported to the United States Sentencing Commission are narcotics prosecutions.  The issue of drug quantity frequently heavily influences the element of Relevant Conduct which factors into those offenders’ Sentencing Guidelines’ Base Offense Levels.

After being convicted by a jury for a federal narcotics conspiracy charge, Petitioner unsuccessfully contested the district judge’s approach to determining the quantity of drugs for which he was being held accountable.  On appeal, Petitioner contended that the trial judge’s methodology should be reviewed de novo.  The Circuit Court reviewed for clear error, which is the standard followed in three courts of appeals.  Conversely, five Circuits apply a de novo standard of review; the process employed by two other Circuits is equally rigorous.  This distinction can make a difference: courts using the more vigorous standard of review have reversed sentences flowing from methodologies that depended more on conjecture than recognized criteria....

Deciding the standard of appellate review is a matter for this Court.  Thus understood, the question presented is whether the Court should resolve the circuit conflict by requiring de novo review for contested methodologies used to determine Base Offense Levels in narcotics prosecutions.

This amicus brief filed in support of the petition frames the issue this way:

Whether the methodology used by a district court to determine drug quantity for purposes of sentencing for drug trafficking offenses should be reviewed de novo, under a heightened standard, or only for clear error, the standard followed by D.C. Circuit below.

Given that nearly 20,000 federal drug cases are sentenced every year — that's roughly 400 each and every week — it is hard to think of a federal sentencing issue much more consequential than the calculation and review of drug quantities.  Fingers crossed this case might capture the attention of at least four Justices.

Just a very few of many prior related posts newer and older:

June 7, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Hoping it is not yet time to give up on passage of the EQUAL Act

When the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in Sept 2021, by a tally of 361-66, to pass the EQUAL Act to equalize powder and crack cocaine sentences, I thought the long ugly stain of the crack/powder disparity might be finally about to come to an end.  In this post, I wondered "After an overwhelming majority of GOP House delegation voted for EQUAL Act, can the Senate move quickly to finally right a 35-year wrong?."  Nearly nine months later, it is now obvious that the Senate was not able to move quickly on this issue.  But, I was still optimistic in March 2022 upon news that a full 10 GOP Senators were now signed on as co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act, and so I asked here "Is Congress finally on the verge of equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences?."

But April brought showers dousing some of my hopefulness in the form of a group of GOP Senators introducing a competing crack/powder sentencing reform bill tougher than EQUAL Act and a press report that Democrats were fearful of potential floor votes around possible EQUAL Act amendments.  And yesterday, I saw that FAMM President Kevin Ring has this new commentary, headlined "The Senate’s Unwillingness to Pass the EQUAL Act Highlights Its Dysfunction," while almost reads like a boxer's corner man throwing in the towel.  Here are excerpts:

When Lavonda Bonds, Yvonne Mosley, and Sagan Soto-Stanton saw the U.S. House overwhelmingly pass a bill last September to eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, they were excited and hopeful.  Their loved ones, who’ve each spent decades languishing in federal prison, could finally come home if the Senate would simply follow suit and pass this noncontroversial reform, known as the EQUAL Act.

Eight months later, these three women — and thousands of other families — are still waiting for the Senate to act.  They want to know what the holdup is.  They think I might know because I have been working in and around Congress for the past 30 years, first as a Capitol Hill staffer, then as a lobbyist, and for the past 13 years, as a D.C.-based advocate for families with loved ones in prison.

Unfortunately, I have to tell them all the same thing: The Senate is broken.  And the EQUAL Act is perhaps the best and most infuriating example of just how broken the Senate has become — it can’t even pass a bill with broad, bipartisan support and fix a 36-year-old mistake....

Congress, which voted unanimously in 2010 to reduce the disparity to 18:1, looked poised to finally eliminate it this year.  A diverse coalition of groups from across the ideological spectrum, including organizations representing police and prosecutors, civil rights, and civil liberties, joined together to support the EQUAL Act to end the unwarranted disparity.

The U.S. House approved the EQUAL Act last September by a vote of 361–66. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), conservative Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), and nearly 70 percent of the Republican caucus joined every House Democrat in a powerful display of bipartisanship on a matter of equal justice.

As attention turned to the Senate, the bill’s supporters secured eleven Republican cosponsors (and more private commitments) to demonstrate that the EQUAL Act was bipartisan, popular, and would not fall victim to the filibuster, the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to cut off debate.  There’s no threat of filibuster preventing a vote for the EQUAL act, which could change the lives of thousands of suffering families.

So what’s the problem?  Senators may have to vote on amendments that get offered to the bill and they are scared.  They fear that members in the small minority who oppose the bill will offer amendments that sound good, yet are bad policy, known as “poison pills.”

This fear has always existed, especially in election years, but in recent years it has grown to the point of creating paralysis.  In the past, supporters of important reforms would stand together in opposition to obviously ill-intentioned amendments.  But senators today obsess over voting against poison pills they think will hurt their re-election chances, and leaders of the Senate’s majority party fear these votes could lose their side’s control of the chamber.  The Democrats control the Senate now, but this has been the practice of both parties in recent years.

The result is an unwillingness to move even popular reforms like the EQUAL Act. Filibuster or not, the Senate is broken.  And if it doesn’t get fixed soon, the families of Lavonda, Yvonne, Sagan, and thousands of others will remain separated by prison bars for no reason.

I do not think this commentary signals that the EQUAL Act cannot still get passed, but it reinforces my fear that the climb is far more uphill than it seemingly should be. One might especially recall that the FIRST STEP Act got to Prez Trump's desk during the lame-duck days after the 2018 election, so maybe that history foreshadows a 2022 path for the EQUAL Act.  But, whatever might come of this particular bill, I continue to be troubled to hear that the Senate cannot advance good policy because it seems a few of its members may fail to understand how to manage politics.  Sigh.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

June 2, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

With Senate leader now pushing for EQUAL Act, can crack sentencing reform finally get to finish line?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Daily News article headlined "Schumer calls for end to crack cocaine sentencing disparity: ‘Cocaine is cocaine’."  Here are excerpts:

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday called on lawmakers to end a sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that has had a disproportionate effect on Black Americans. “We have a moment to balance the scales of justice,” the New York Democrat said at a news conference outside the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan. “It’s common sense: Cocaine is cocaine, and the sentencing should be equal.”

In September, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation to end a sentencing formula that uses an 18-to-1 ratio in treating equal amounts of crack and powder cocaine. The bipartisan vote was 361 to 66. Democrats and Republicans embraced the chance to correct what activists, researchers and law enforcement view as a historical wrong. Pricey powder cocaine has long been seen as the province of the wealthy, while crack is cheaper and generally associated with poorer Americans....

But the bill, called the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, has not yet landed on the floor of the Senate this spring, with both parties moving cautiously ahead of the pivotal midterm elections in November.

Schumer, who declined to describe a timeline for passage, appeared to be embarking upon a pressure campaign meant to clear space for the legislation’s approval without a fierce fight on the floor. In the Senate, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are sponsoring the legislation to end the sentencing disparities. “We’re working together — Sens. Booker, Portman and myself — figuring out the right timeframe and the right way to go,” Schumer told reporters Monday. “We want to get this done as soon as we can.”

Booker’s office said Monday that the legislation has picked up 21 cosponsors, including 11 Republicans, since it was introduced in the Senate in January. Booker said in a statement he was “pleased that Leader Schumer has called for a vote on the bill.” “For decades, our nation’s drug laws have been overly punitive and fraught with racial disparities, but perhaps no law has been as fundamentally flawed as the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity,” Booker said in the statement. “I look forward to passing the EQUAL Act as soon as possible.”

Beginning in 1986, mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine crimes were formulated using a staggering 100-to-1 ratio. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, signed into law by President Barack Obama, changed the ratio to 18 to 1. “Some of our colleagues would say, ‘Well, I’ll lower it, but I won’t make it equal,’” said Schumer, who at one point held up sweetener packets as props during the news conference. “100 to 1 was horrible, but 18 to 1 was just as horrible, which it is now. 1 to 1 is fair.”

Senator Schumer is wrong to assert current crack sentencing after the Fair Sentencing Act is "just as horrible" as it was under the 100-1 ratio.  It is a bit better, but still not actually fair.  The EQUAL Act finally presents the prospect of getting to the 1-1 sentencing ratio that the US Sentencing Commission urged way back in 1995.  More than a quarter of a century later, I hope Senator Schumer is right about the fact that now is finally, finally "a moment to balance the scales of justice."

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

May 24, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases notable new report on recidivism rates for federal prisoners completing drug programs

The US Sentencing Commission today released this lengthy new report titled "Recidivism and Federal Bureau of Prisons Programs: Drug Program Participants Released in 2010." This report is the fifth in a series continuing the USSC's detailed examination of recidivism by federal offenders released in 2010.  This USSC webpage provides this brief account of the coverage and findings of the report:

In this report, the Commission provides an analysis of data on the recidivism of federal offenders who participated in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) drug abuse treatment while incarcerated. The study examines whether completion of drug programs offered by the BOP impacted recidivism among a cohort of federal offenders who were released from prison in calendar year 2010. The report combines data regularly collected by the Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) criminal history records, and data on program completion and participation provided by the BOP.

In this report, Drug Program Participants were offenders who participated in one of the following programs:

  • Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP)
    • The first group comprises 8,474 offenders who the BOP marked as eligible to participate in RDAP while serving time in BOP custody.
    • RDAP is the BOP’s “most intensive” drug treatment program and requires that participants receive treatment in a specialized unit that houses only RDAP participants
       
  • Non-Residential Drug Abuse Program (NRDAP)
    • The second group comprises 4,446 offenders who were marked as eligible to participate in NRDAP.
    • NRDAP consists of drug treatment, conducted primarily in a group setting, over the course of 12 to 24 weeks.

    Key Findings

    This study observed a significant reduction in the likelihood of recidivism for offenders who completed the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program or the Non-Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program.

    • RDAP Completers had lower rates of recidivism, compared to eligible offenders who did not complete or participate in the program. Less than half of RDAP Completers (48.2%) recidivated in the eight-year follow-up period of this study, compared to 68.0 percent of RDAP Eligible Non-Participants.
      • RDAP Completers were 27 percent less likely to recidivate compared to RDAP-Eligible Non-Participants.
      • RDAP Completers had higher post-release rates of drug-related recidivism, compared to RDAP Participants and RDAP Eligible Non-Participants.
    • NRDAP Completers had lower recidivism rates compared to offenders who did not complete or participate in the program. Nearly half (49.9%) of offenders who completed NRDAP recidivated during the study period, compared to over half (54.0%) of NRDAP Eligible Non-Participants.
      • NRDAP Completers were 17 percent less likely to recidivate compared to eligible non-participants and offenders with a history of substance abuse who served at least five months in BOP custody.

May 17, 2022 in Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 29, 2022

GOP Senators introduce competing crack/powder sentencing reform bill tougher than EQUAL Act

Regular readers should be aware from my prior postings that Congress seems poised to pass the EQUAL Act to entirely eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.  This disparity and its racialized impacts have been an ugly part of the federal sentencing landscape for over 35 years (when Congress first created the 100:1 disparity), and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 only partially reduced the disparity (down to 18:1).  But after the US House voted overwhelmingly, 361-66, to pass the EQUAL Act to end disparity last year, and after the Senate version had secured 11 GOP sponsors, I was hopeful the powder and crack cocaine disparity could and would finally be ended this year.

But, this press release from Senator Chuck Grassley's office, titled "Senators Introduce Bill To Reduce Crack-Powder Sentencing Disparity, Protect Communities From Criminals Most Likely To Reoffend," now has me concerned that a competing bill might now muck up the works.  Here are the details from the release:

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) today introduced the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act, which will reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders tried in federal courts. The legislation aims to make sentencing fairer while also preserving the ability of courts to keep those most likely to reoffend off the street.

“I’ve worked on this issue for many years. I cosponsored the 2010 legislation led by Senators Durbin and Sessions to reduce the disparity in sentencing from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.  It’s high time to do more to address this important issue and make our criminal code more just and fair.  Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring those more likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties.  Powder cocaine is being trafficked across the border in historic volumes, so we also need to take precautions that ensure these traffickers also face justice for spreading poison through our communities,” Grassley said....

This sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders has had a disparate impact on communities of color across the country.  Reducing this disparate impact is critical, but must be thoughtfully enacted to prevent likely reoffenders from returning to communities just to violate the law again.

Separate legislation has been introduced in the Senate to completely flatten the differences between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.  This approach does not account for the differences in recidivism rates associated with the two types of cocaine offenses.  According to a January 2022 analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), crack cocaine offenders recidivate at the highest rate of any drug type at 60.8 percent, while powder cocaine offenders recidivate at the lowest rate of any drug type at 43.8 percent.  Raising additional public safety concerns, USSC data reveals that crack cocaine offenders were the most likely among all drug offenders to carry deadly weapons during offenses. These statistics show the need for a close look at all available government data before we consider an approach to flatten sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses. 

The SMART [Start Making Adjustments and Require Transparency in] Cocaine Sentencing Act will reduce the current crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 18:1 to 2.5:1. It reduces the volume required to trigger 5-year mandatory minimum sentences for powder cocaine from 500 grams to 400 grams, and from 5 kilograms to 4 kilograms for 10-year mandatory minimum sentences.  For crack cocaine, the volume triggering a 5-year mandatory sentence is increased from 28 grams to 160 grams; the volume for the 10-year mandatory sentence is lifted from 280 grams to 1,600 grams.

Critically, the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act also requires an attorney general review and certification process for any retroactive sentencing adjustments. It provides for new federal research from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the lethality and addictiveness of these substances as well as what violence is associated with cocaine-related crimes. The legislation also requires a new report from the USSC on crack and powder cocaine offenses, including data on recidivism rates....

Full legislative text of the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act can be found HERE.  

Kevin Ring has an effective Twitter thread here criticizing various aspects of this proposal, which he calls the "The Grassley Unequal Act."  I hope that this bill does not impede progress on the EQUAL Act, but the fact that the EQUAL Act has not become law already make me concerned about the fate and future or long-overdue efforts to end the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

UPDATE This new New York Times article, headlined "Drug Sentencing Bill Is in Limbo as Midterm Politics Paralyze Congress," details why the EQUAL Act may not get to the finish line in this Congress.  Here are excerpts:

[W]ith control of Congress at stake and Republicans weaponizing a law-and-order message against Democrats in their midterm election campaigns, the fate of the measure is in doubt. Democrats worry that bringing it up would allow Republicans to demand a series of votes that could make them look soft on crime and lax on immigration — risks they are reluctant to take months before they face voters.

Even the measure’s Republican backers concede that bringing it to the floor could lead to an array of difficult votes.  “I assume the topic opens itself pretty wide,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who became the 11th member of his party to sign on to the Equal Act this month, giving its supporters more than the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles....

Though Mr. Schumer endorsed the legislation in April, he has not laid out a timeline for bringing it to the floor.  Democrats say he is giving backers of the bill a chance to build additional support and find a way to advance the measure without causing a floor fight that could take weeks — time that Democrats do not have if they want to continue to win approval of new judges and take care of other business before the end of the year....

Its supporters say that they recognize the difficulties but believe that it is the single piece of criminal justice legislation with a chance of reaching the president’s desk in the current political environment.  “Of all the criminal justice bills, this is the one that is set up for success right now,” said Inimai Chettiar, the federal director for the Justice Action Network. “It is not going to be easy on the floor, but I think it is doable.”

The problem is that the push comes as top Republicans have made clear that they intend to try to capitalize on public concern about increasing crime in the battle for Senate and House control in November....  Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, this week reprised his criticism of Judge Jackson and attacked Mr. Biden for having issued his first round of pardons and commutations, including for those convicted of drug crimes.  “They never miss an opportunity to send the wrong signal,” he said of Democrats.

Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who led the opposition to the First Step Act, said he was in no mood to let the Equal Act sail through. He has said that if the disparity is to be erased, penalties for powder cocaine should be increased.  “My opposition to the Equal Act will be as strong as my opposition to the First Step Act,” Mr. Cotton said.

The legislation encountered another complication on Thursday, when Senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah, two top Republican supporters of the previous criminal justice overhaul, introduced a competing bill that would reduce — but not eliminate — the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. They said that research showed that crack traffickers were more likely to return to crime and carry deadly weapons.  “Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring those more likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties,” said Mr. Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Sponsors of the Equal Act say they intend to push forward and remain optimistic that they can overcome the difficulties.  “We’ve got an amazing bill, and we’ve got 11 Republicans and people want to get this done,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and the lead sponsor of the legislation. “My hope is that we are going to have a shot to get this done right now.”

With strong advocates of the EQUAL Act now saying that getting this to the floor of the Senate is "doable" or can "have a shot," I cannot help but think it is quite a long shot this Congress.  Sigh.

April 29, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 24, 2022

"The consequences of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act for police arrests"

The title of this post is the title of this notable empirical paper that was published earlier this year but came to my attention this weekend.  Here is its abstract:

Background & methods

National protests in the summer of 2020 drew attention to the significant presence of police in marginalized communities.  Recent social movements have called for substantial police reforms, including “defunding the police,” a phrase originating from a larger, historical abolition movement advocating that public investments be redirected away from the criminal justice system and into social services and health care.  Although research has demonstrated the expansive role of police to respond a broad range of social problems and health emergencies, existing research has yet to fully explore the capacity for health insurance policy to influence rates of arrest in the population.  To fill this gap, we examine the potential effect of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on arrests in 3,035 U.S. counties.  We compare county-level arrests using FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program Data before and after Medicaid expansion in 2014–2016, relative to counties in non-expansion states. We use difference-in-differences (DID) models to estimate the change in arrests following Medicaid expansion for overall arrests, and violent, drug, and low-level arrests.

Results

Police arrests significantly declined following the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. Medicaid expansion produced a 20–32% negative difference in overall arrests rates in the first three years.  We observe the largest negative differences for drug arrests: we find a 25–41% negative difference in drug arrests in the three years following Medicaid expansion, compared to non-expansion counties.  We observe a 19–29% negative difference in arrests for violence in the three years after Medicaid expansion, and a decrease in low-level arrests between 24–28% in expansion counties compared to non-expansion counties. Our main results for drug arrests are robust to multiple sensitivity analyses, including a state-level model.

Conclusions

Evidence in this paper suggests that expanded Medicaid insurance reduced police arrests, particularly drug-related arrests.  Combined with research showing the harmful health consequences of chronic policing in disadvantaged communities, greater insurance coverage creates new avenues for individuals to seek care, receive treatment, and avoid criminalization.  As police reform is high on the agenda at the local, state, and federal level, our paper supports the perspective that broad health policy reforms can meaningfully reduce contact with the criminal justice system under historic conditions of mass criminalization.

April 24, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

New letter from House CBC members urges EQUAL Act Senate floor vote ASAP

As detailed in this press release, all House Members of the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter this week "calling on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin to bring H.R. 1693, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act to the Senate floor for a vote."  Here is part of the text of the letter:

As you know, in 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established a 100:1 sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine.  Over the years, this policy has been widely criticized for lacking scientific and penological justification.  Accordingly, Congress has taken steps to address this problem through the passage of the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, and the bipartisan First Step Act of 2018, which made those changes retroactive.  Both efforts made our drug sentencing laws fairer, but the work is not done as long as a significant and harmful disparity remains.

The impacts of these policies on communities of color across the country have been devastating.  According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in Fiscal Year 2020, 77.1% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders were Black, whereas most powder cocaine trafficking offenders were either white or Hispanic.  Put simply, this law is unjust, unconscionable and unacceptable.  It is time to eliminate this disparity once and for all.  

That is why we write in support of bringing the EQUAL Act (H.R. 1693/S. 79) to the Senate Floor for consideration as soon as possible.  It would eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity and ensure that those who were convicted or sentenced for a federal offense involving cocaine can receive a re-sentencing under the new law.  According to a recent analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, approximately 827 individuals would benefit from the prospective section of the bill each year, and 7,787 offenders in BOP custody would be eligible to seek a modification of their sentence based on the retroactive section.  In total, the EQUAL Act will reduce excessive prison time by 67,800 years, and 91 percent of the individuals who will get this critical relief are Black.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

April 6, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 31, 2022

New short FAMM memo makes the case for the EQUAL Act

The folks at FAMM today released this short memo titled "The EQUAL Act: Why Congress Must #EndTheDisparity Between Federal Crack & Powder Cocaine Sentences."   Though only two pages, the memo cover a lot of ground, and here are some of its concluding points (with cites removed):

The crack-powder disparity fosters and entrenches racial inequality

  • In 2019, 81% of people convicted of crack cocaine crimes were Black, even though white and Hispanic people have historically accounted for over 66% of crack users.
  • Before Congress established the crack-powder disparity in 1986, the average federal drug sentence for Black people was 11% higher than for whites. Just four years later, the average federal drug sentence for Black defendants was 49% higher.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that, in the case of crack cocaine penalties, “perceived improper racial disparity fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system.”

Passing the EQUAL Act would reunite families sooner and protect taxpayers

  • If enacted, the EQUAL Act would reduce sentences for people serving time for crack offenses by an average of just over six years. This change alone would cut a total of 46,500 years off sentences.
  • For those convicted after the EQUAL Act passes, their average sentence will be reduced by 2.5 years. This change will reduce total sentences over the next ten years by 21,300 years.
  • By reducing unnecessary prison time by an estimated 67,800 years for people, 91 percent of whom are Black, the EQUAL Act will reunite thousands of families sooner and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the first decade alone.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

March 31, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Is Congress finally on the verge of equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences?

I asked in this post a few weeks ago, "Why is getting the EQUAL Act through the US Senate proving so challenging?".  Excitingly, as detailed in this new Bloomberg piece, headlined "GOP Support Clears Senate Path for Bill on Cocaine Sentencing," it now looks like a bill to equalize crack and powder sentences now may have a ready path to passage. Here are the exciting details:

Ten Senate Republicans have signed on to a bill that would eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between drug offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, paving the way for likely passage in the evenly divided chamber where 60 votes are needed for most legislation.

“That looks like you’d get to 60, really,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, one of the 10 GOP co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act.  “This is the Democrats’ prerogative, it’d be nice if they would bring it to the floor.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor on Monday, but his office did not immediately respond to questions on his plans for floor debate.  The bill passed the House, 361-66, in September and President Joe Biden, who campaigned on criminal justice reform, is expected to sign the measure when it reaches his desk.

The bill, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, eliminates the lower quantity thresholds for crack cocaine, which the bill’s proponents have said unjustly targets Black offenders.

In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 77.1% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders were Black and 6.3% were White.  Yet White people are more likely to use cocaine in their lifetime than any other group, according to the 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

Current laws establish an 18-to-1 ratio on federal penalties for crack and powder cocaine, meaning anyone found with 28 grams of crack cocaine would face the same five-year mandatory prison sentence as a person found with 500 grams of powder cocaine....

Sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine were originally created in 1986 with a 100-to-1 ratio.  The Sentencing Commission issued a special report in 1995 stating the 100-to-1 ratio punished low-level crack dealers “far more severely” than high-level suppliers of powder cocaine, despite there being no pharmacological difference between the two forms of the drug.  Then-President Bill Clinton and Congress rejected the commission’s recommendations to amend the law.

Fifteen years later, Congress reduced the sentencing disparity from to 18-to-1, but advocates have fought to further narrow the sentencing gap....

Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, recently signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill after studying the issue with constituents, he said, and determining this would be a step toward “criminal justice fairness.” Moran said it is his “expectation that this bill will be considered by the Senate.”

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

March 23, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Highlighting some disparities identified in recent "Dealing in Lives" report on federal life sentences for drug offenses

In this post a few days ago, I spotlighted this terrific new research paper authored by Alex Fraga, who serves as a Senior Research Associate at Ohio State's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).  The paper, titled "Dealing in Lives: Imposition of Federal Life Sentences for Drugs from 1990–2020," is the focal point of this new Filter article titled "Federal Life Sentences for Drugs: Unconscionable and Massively Biased." Here is some of the coverage:

Studying federal life and de facto life sentences for drugs in federal courts from 1990 to 2020, Dr. Fraga found stunningly awful racial disparities.  Federal life sentences are practically reserved for defendants who are Black (62.4 percent) or Hispanic (22 percent).  Crack cocaine was the drug involved in roughly half of federal life sentences, yet the disparities held independent of drug type.

In addition, many people were punished more harshly for wanting to exercise their constitutional rights.  As Fraga writes, “An astonishing 72% percent of those sentenced to life or de facto life for drug trafficking exercised their right to trial.”

When the system is largely a conveyor belt of plea bargains, with over 90 percent of cases never going to trial, “astonishing” is right.  Defendants who demand that prosecutors meet their burden of proof are often hit with harsher charges and sentencing outcomes.... 

Yet another layer of inconsistency and arbitrariness in federal drug sentencing exposed by the report covers is geography-based. Just five districts — three in Florida, one in Virginia and one in South Carolina — accounted for 25 percent of all federal life and de facto life sentences imposed for drug trafficking during the study period.  For context, there are 93 federal court districts in the nation. Each has its own presidentially-appointed US attorney, who enjoys a wide band of discretion on who to charge and with what.

How could this happen? Despite ostensible efforts toward uniformity, federal courthouses in different parts of the country have developed their own local legal cultures. For example, in southern Georgia, there is no public defender office for impoverished people charged with federal crimes; they receive appointed attorneys who are often uninvested and lack expertise in criminal law.  That district also has some of the harshest sentencing outcomes in the country.

I am grateful to see this engagement with some of the data in the new report, and there are so many other interesting findings therein.  As mentioned previously, a number of the paper's key findings (and visuals) can be viewed at this DEPC webpage.

Prior related post:

March 10, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12)

Sunday, March 06, 2022

"Dealing in Lives: Imposition of Federal Life Sentences for Drugs from 1990–2020"

I am extraordinarily pleased and proud to be able spotlight this terrific new research paper authored by Alex Fraga, who serves as a Senior Research Associate at Ohio State's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).  The paper shares the title of this post, and the work is an extraordinary compilation and examination of federal drug life sentence.  Here is the paper's abstract:

The “tough on crime” era of the 1980’s and 1990’s ushered in a growing reliance on prisons, the ratcheting up of sentence lengths, and a broader expansion of the criminal justice system.  Life sentences, historically rarely imposed, became increasingly commonplace in the 1980s through the 2000s, contributing to the ballooning imprisoned population. While there are growing concerns about the increased use of life sentences in the United States, there has been limited empirical study of these sentences.  This report seeks to fill this gap with a particular focus on the federal sentencing system and the imposition of life sentences for drug offenses.  Specifically, the current report documents federal life sentences imposed for drug trafficking over the last three decades, taking a closer look at the defendant and case-specific characteristics, and providing a descriptive account of the factors that are associated with those sentenced to life in prison in federal courts.

At this DEPC webpage, a number of the paper's key findings (and visuals) can be viewed.  Here is the first one:

Key Finding 1:  After record highs in the 1990s and 2000s, the number and rate of life and de facto life sentences imposed have declined significantly over the last decade.

March 6, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Rounding up some reviews of SCOTUS argument in appeals by doctors convicted of opioid drug dealing

As previewed in this prior post, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in two cases on Tuesday morning, Ruan v. United States and Kahn v. United States, which explored the proper legal standards when the federal government looks to prosecute doctors as drug dealers.  I have a chance to listen to part of the argument, and it was both fascinating and frustrating for all sorts of reasons — e.g., the regular use of speeding laws as a hypothetical to explore mens rea standards for a statute in which Congress expressly requires a person to act "knowingly or intentionally" struck me as deeply misguided.  The transcript is available here, and here is a round-up of some review of the argument:

From the AP, "Justices seem to favor docs convicted in pain pill schemes"

From the Courthouse News Service, "Justices grapple with drug charges for pill-mill doctors"

From The Hill, "Supreme Court grapples with drug-dealing convictions for opioid prescribers"

From Reuters, "U.S. Supreme Court mulls 'pill mill' doctors' opioid convictions"

From SCOTUSblog, "In opioids “pill mill” case, justices grapple with physician intent"

From the portion of the oral argument that I was able to listed to, I came away with a sense that the doctor defendants have a reasonable chance of prevailing.  

March 2, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Why is getting the EQUAL Act through the US Senate proving so challenging?

In this post six weeks ago on MLK day, I asked "How about passing the EQUAL Act so we can be 'free at last' from the crack/powder sentencing disparity?".  I noted in this prior post that the Senate version of the EQUAL Act has garnered seven notable and diverse GOP Senators as co-sponsors, and that this comes after last Fall the Act was passed by the US House by a vote of 361-66 with a majority of GOP Representative voting in favor.  These matters are on my mind particularly today after seeing this new DOJ press release headed "Readout of Justice Department Leadership Meeting with FAMM."  Here is an excerpt (with my emphasis added):

The meeting focused on the positive real-world impact of the finalization of the First Step Act Time Credit Rule, and the recent memorandum by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) concerning home confinement, as well as the need for Congress to pass the EQUAL Act.  The department has strongly urged Congress to pass the EQUAL ACT, which would reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences from 18:1 to 1:1.

The Attorney General emphasized that meetings like these are “vitally important” to help department leadership understand how its “policies on paper affect people and their communities.”    During her remarks, Deputy Attorney General Monaco spoke about the importance of implementing the First Step Act and the Time Credit Rule and praised the work of FAMM. She noted that “as of this month, thousands of people are returning to their communities having put in the work to do so.”  

In Associate Attorney General Gupta’s opening remarks, she reiterated the importance of hearing from individuals directly impacted by the criminal justice system and shared that the department provided written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the EQUAL Act in June 2021, saying, “the current sentencing differential between crack and powder cocaine is not based in evidence and yet has caused significant harm in particular to communities of color.  It’s past time to correct this.”

I strongly agree that it is long past time to fix the crack/powder disparity, and every day matters: on average, every single workday, about 5 people — 4 whom are typically black and the other who is most likely Latino — are sentenced based on unjust crack sentencing rules in federal court.  Consequently, I continue to be deeply troubled that, nearly six months after the US House overwhelmingly voted with majorities in both parties in pass a bill to equalize crack and powder penalties, this bipartisan bill remains stuck in neutral in the US Senate.  Sigh.

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

March 1, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 28, 2022

Previewing the notable criminal drug prosecution cases before SCOTUS

Tomorrow morning the Supreme Court hears oral argument in a couple of the relatively few criminal cases it will be addressing this Term.  Two cases are consolidated for one argument, Ruan v. United States and Kahn v. United States, and here is the question presented:

Whether a physician alleged to have prescribed controlled substances outside the usual course of professional practice may be convicted of unlawful distribution under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) without regard to whether, in good faith, he “reasonably believed” or “subjectively intended” that his prescriptions fall within that course of professional practice.

The setting for SCOTUS to be addressing this question is quite interesting and still timely, and a number of media outlets have these helpful previews:

From JD Supra, "Pain Management or Pill Mill? Supreme Court to Weigh in on Standards for Prosecutions of Practitioners Prescribing Narcotics"

From Law360, "DOJ Has Few Allies, Many Foes In High Court Opioid Brawl"

From the New York Times, "Were These Doctors Treating Pain or Dealing Drugs?: The Supreme Court will hear from two convicted pill mill doctors in cases that could have significant implications for physicians’ latitude to prescribe addictive painkillers."

From SCOTUSblog, "Amid overdose crisis, court will weigh physician intent in “pill mill” prosecutions and more under the Controlled Substances Act"

From STAT, "Fight over opioid prescribing — and when it turns criminal — heads to Supreme Court"

February 28, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

New Pew report spotlights "Drug Arrests Stayed High Even as Imprisonment Fell From 2009 to 2019"

Drug arrests Fig-1The quoted part of the title of this post is the title of this awesome new "issue brief" from the folks at Pew.  The full document merits close and repeated review, because there are stories both good and bad about this effective (pre-pandemic) accounting of the war on drugs. Here is part of the overview:

Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy No. 1,” and Congress passed legislation that sought to expand treatment and research. However, at the same time, intensified enforcement launched what became known as the “War on Drugs.” The harsher penalties led to a 1,216% increase in the state prison population for drug offenses, from 19,000 to 250,000 between 1980 and 2008.  And although prison populations have since declined, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses remains substantially larger than in 1980 — more than 171,000 in 2019 — and drug misuse and its harms have continued to grow.  Prior research has found that no relationship exists between state drug imprisonment rates and drug use or drug overdose deaths and that, from 2009 to 2019, past-year illicit drug use among Americans 12 or older increased from 15% to nearly 21% and the overdose death rate more than tripled.

To better identify and understand recent changes in and effects of the use of the criminal legal system to address drug problems, The Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed publicly available national data on drug arrests and imprisonment, drug treatment, and harm from drug misuse from 2009 through 2019 — the most recent decade for which data is available. The study found divergent enforcement trends—high rates of arrest but substantially reduced incarceration — coupled with a lack of treatment options and high mortality rates among people with illicit drug dependence.

  • Drug possession arrests held steady at more than a million a year, in stark contrast with a large reduction in overall arrests, which dropped 29%.

  • Only 1 in 13 people who were arrested and had a drug dependency received treatment while in jail or prison.

  • Racial disparities in drug enforcement declined. Arrests of Black people for drug offenses fell by 37%, more than three times the drop among White people.

  • Increased arrests of White individuals for possession of methamphetamine offset declines in marijuana arrests and drove the reduction in racial disparities.

  • The numbers of people admitted to and held in state prisons for drug offenses both fell by about a third, accounting for 61% of the overall reduction in prison populations and 38% of the total decline in admissions.

  • The decline in the number of Black people incarcerated for drug offenses made up 26% of the decrease in prison admissions and 48% of the drop in the prison population.

  • Drug- and alcohol-related mortality rates increased fivefold in prisons and threefold in jails despite the decreases in the number of people in prison for drug offenses.

These trends indicate both an ongoing reliance on the criminal legal system to address drug misuse and that this strategy is costly and ineffective.  Meaningful reductions in total drug arrests and drug-related deaths may not be achieved without shifting to a public health response that prioritizes evidence-based treatment approaches.

February 15, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Different perspectives one year after Measure 110 took effect decriminalizing low-level drug possession in Oregon

Via an email with this press release from the Drug Policy Alliance, I received a reminder that today marks one year since the effective data of Measure 110, Oregon's ballot initiative decriminalizing personal possession of all drugs.  The DPA release suggests there is much to celebrate on this anniversary:

While the robust support infrastructure is still getting off the ground, early results show over 16,000 people have already been able to access services. Additionally, there has been a nearly 60% decrease in the amount of people who have been arrested for any drug offense (approximately 3,700 drug offense arrests in the first 10 months after decriminalization took effect compared to over 9,100 arrests in the same 10-month period of 2020....

According to the first round of data from the Oregon Health Authority (based on grant reports from the Access to Care grants that went out last spring and summer — representing the initial $31.4 million previously mentioned — to 67 organizations and 11 tribes and tribal organizations), the funding has been used to:

  • Provide grant funding to 67 harm reduction, treatment, housing, peer support and recovery organizations across 29 counties
  • Provide funding to 11 Tribes and Tribal organizations through Tribal set aside
  • Provide services to 16,000 people, 60% of which engaged with harm reduction services
  • Hire 115 staff to provide a variety of health, harm reduction, treatment, housing and recovery services
  • Purchase 12 vehicles to provide mobile health and harm reduction services
  • Purchase three housing units - one motel, one duplex, and one gender and culturally-specific recovery house, plus 10 tiny houses
  • Secure four leases on new facilities
  • Purchase 154,535 harm reduction supplies
  • Pay for four 24-hour peer support and crisis phone lines

This Filter article reports on the one-year anniversary in a somewhat similar vein under the headline "One Year on, Oregon Drug Decriminalization Is Boosting Harm Reduction and Housing":

Housing is another particularly important need that Measure 110 is helping to address. “Not everyone’s going to get into residential treatment and not everyone needs residential treatment,” [Tera Hurst, executive director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance] said. “Some people actually have better outcomes if you’re able to house them in their community and offer these ‘wraparound’ services.” 

Hurst acknowledged Oregon’s huge task of setting up the behavioral health resource network in 2022.  But advocates like her are also on the defensive — already, state lawmakers are making plans to take money allocated for expanding services and spend it instead on more police.

Challenges and battles remain, therefore.  But thousands of people in Oregon, whether receiving services or avoiding arrest, have already felt benefits from Measure 110. And with major funding soon to be rolled out, many more positive impacts are expected in 2022.

But some other media sources have a somewhat different perspectives on how things are going in Oregon.  This local press piece, headlined "As Meth and Fentanyl Tighten Their Grips on Oregon, the State Scrambles to Implement Treatment Services: Measure 110 will provide a massive infusion of new money but overdose deaths are skyrocketing," provides some sobering statistics:

The good news, Oregon State Medical Examiner Dr. Sean Hurst recently told lawmakers, is that the jump in Oregon’s alcohol-related deaths in 2020 flattened in the first half of 2021. The bad news: Drug overdose deaths, particularly those involving fentanyl and methamphetamine, soared to new highs.

Deaths attributable to meth jumped from 2019 to 2020, and are on pace for a bigger increase in 2021, Hurst told lawmakers Jan. 13. Though slightly less numerous, fentanyl-related deaths are rising much faster: They more than doubled from 2019 to 2020 and are on pace to rise steeply in 2021.  Together, medical examiner figures show, the two drugs will account for the deaths of more than 1,000 Oregonians in 2021 — that’s nearly three per day. “Substance use disorder is prevalent and it’s everywhere,” says Tony Vezina, chairman of the Oregon Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission.

Hurst presented his dismal news on drug deaths as the state races to implement Measure 110, the 2020 ballot measure that forced two major policy shifts.  It decriminalized the possession for personal use of many hard drugs, including heroin, meth, cocaine and some opioids. Measure 110 also shifted funding from Oregon’s cannabis taxes — well over $100 million a year — to fund new referral and treatment services for substance use disorder....

The idea was that those cited for possession could avoid a fine by calling a phone number on their ticket; that connection would open a gateway to evaluation and services—and get up to $100 of their fine waived. Data collected by the Oregon Judicial Department from February 2021 through Dec. 31, however, shows that avenue has not worked. Police wrote 1,826 tickets last year for hard drugs (nearly two-thirds for meth) but few — only 55 for the whole year — prompted users to telephone the number for services.

Advocates of Measure 110 say it will take time for the benefits to become apparent, as was the case in Portugal, which decriminalized hard drugs in 2001 and saw its overdose death rate plummet — but only after services were in place.

Tera Hurst, executive director of the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance (and no relation to the medical examiner), says voters signaled they wanted an explicit shift away from treating people with substance use disorders as criminals and to instead direct energy and money toward treatment.  She says it’s unsurprising that citations are not driving drug users to seek help. She and other advocates did not expect they would. Even arrests rarely motivated users to seek treatment, they say — most go only when they are ready.

This other local press stories also set forth distinct perspectives on drug-related challenges in the Beaver State:

"Oregon is No. 2 in nation for addiction, last on access to treatment"

"Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure fails to fund treatment"

February 1, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (14)

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

"Child Pornography and Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN and authored by Dawinder Sidhu and Kelsey Robinson. Here is its abstract:

Drug offenses lie at the heart of the movement for criminal justice reform, and for good reason.  The defining attributes of prevailing drug policy — severe and disproportionate penalties owning to a retributive, factually flawed, and hurried congressional process — apply to the child pornography context as well.  In this Article, we identify the common issues with drug and child pornography sentencing and outline the doctrinal implications of this shared foundation, especially as to district court discretion to vary under Kimbrough v. United States.

Though drug sentencing is problematic enough, child pornography is arguably worse.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission has disavowed these guidelines and invited judges to vary from them.  Judges have done just that, varying in 63% of all cases, more than any other offense type.  Thus, in this Article, we also suggest how the improvements to this uniquely distressed area of law can inform criminal justice reform more generally, especially as to substantive reasonableness review under Gall v. United States, mandatory minimum sentences, and sunset provisions for penalty levels.

Child pornography is not part of the conversation for criminal justice reform.  We take on child pornography sentencing, and in doing so hope to ensure that the movement for criminal justice reform is both correct and complete.

January 25, 2022 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gall reasonableness case, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

SCOTUS to hear argument over terms of crack offense resentencing under FIRST STEP Act

The Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument on Wednesday morning in Concepcion v. USNo. 20-1650, which presents the following sentencing issue as phrased by the petitioner in this brief:

Whether, when deciding if it should “impose a reduced sentence” on an individual under section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018, 21 U.S.C. § 841 note, a district court must or may consider intervening legal and factual developments.

The Government articulates the issues somewhat differently in its brief:

Whether a district court is required to consider all legal and factual developments occurring after an offender’s original sentencing — whether or not related to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372 — in connection with a motion for a reduced sentence under Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5222.

I was happy to be able to join this law professors' amicus brief which stresses the centrality of the 3553(a) factors at federal sentencing, which calls for analysis of all relevant considerations at initial sentencings and at any resentencings.

January 18, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 17, 2022

How about passing the EQUAL Act so we can be "free at last" from the crack/powder sentencing disparity?

On MLK day, I have a tradition of making time to listen to the full "I Have A Dream" speech by Dr. King, which always delivers and always has its own unique power each and every listen.  In recent years, I have also used this day to explore Stanford University's awesome collection of MLK Papers; in posts linked below, I have quoted from various renown speeches and writings with an emphasis on the intersection of the civil rights movement and criminal justice reform.  But this recent news item from Wyoming has me today focused on a specific policy ask for advancing freedom and racial justice:

U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., became the seventh Republican co-sponsor of the EQUAL Act on Friday, which would fully and finally eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

The two substances are virtually identical and equally dangerous, and yet crack carries a penalty that is 18 times that of powder cocaine, according to a news release. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 361-66, including 143 Republicans.

Lummis joined Republican Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, as co-sponsors. Advocates from across the political spectrum said the addition of Lummis is a clear indication that the EQUAL Act has the momentum needed to pass the Senate....

The EQUAL Act has support from groups across the political spectrum, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, National District Attorneys Association, Americans for Tax Reform, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Prison Fellowship, Due Process Institute, Americans for Prosperity, FAMM, Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, Faith and Freedom Coalition, ALEC Action, R Street Institute, FreedomWorks and Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

With seven notable and diverse GOP senators serving now serving as co-sponsors for the EQUAL Act, I have to believe this bill could easily overcome any filibuster efforts and secure passage on the floor of the Senate (likely by the 5 to 1 margin that it secured passage in the House).  So why is this not getting done ASAP?  To its credit, the Biden Administration has testified in support of the EQUAL Act in the US Senate, but I have not heard Prez Biden himself (or VP Harris) lean into this issue at all.  (Notably, if they want to focus on voting rights as a focal point for civil rights advocacy, they might also really advance the MLK legacy by taking on felony disenfranchisement.  Moreover, they should try to get bipartisan bills like the EQUAL Act passed into law so that people who care about criminal justice reform can better understand why they should bother to vote at all.)  

In part because US Sentencing Commission data reveal that "only" 1,217 persons were sentenced on crack trafficking offenses in FY 2020, which accounts for "only" 7.5% of all offenders sentenced for drug trafficking offenses, the import and impact of the EQUAL Act would not be as huge now as it might have been in years past.  (In FY 2009, just before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-1 to 18-1, there were over 5,000 persons sentenced on crack offenses; indeed, more than 5,000 persons were sentenced each year on federal crack offenses through most of the 2000s.)  Still, the USSC 2020 data show that over 93% of those sentenced for federal crack offenses are persons of color (with 77% black), so that there is still a profound inequitable impact from our federal sentencing scheme that still unfairly treats crack offenses as much more serious than functionally comparable powder offenses.

Links to some prior MLK Day posts:

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

January 17, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

US Sentencing Commission issues new report on "Recidivism of Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders Released in 2010"

Cover_recidivism-drugs-2021The US Sentencing Commission today published some more findings from its big eight-year recidivism study of federal offenders released from prison in 2010. This new 144-page report is titled "Recidivism of Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders Released in 2010," and this USSC webpage provides this overview with key findings:

Overview

This report is the third in a series continuing the Commission’s research of the recidivism of federal offenders.  It provides an overview of the recidivism of the 13,783 federal drug trafficking offenders released from incarceration or sentenced to a term of probation in 2010, combining data regularly collected by the Commission with data compiled from criminal history records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  This report provides an overview of recidivism for these offenders and information on key offender and offense characteristics related to recidivism. This report also compares recidivism outcomes for federal drug trafficking offenders released in 2010 to drug trafficking offenders released in 2005.

The final study group of 13,783 drug trafficking offenders satisfied the following criteria:

  • United States citizens
  • Re-entered the community during 2010 after discharging their sentence of incarceration or by commencing a term of probation in 2010
  • Not reported dead, escaped, or detained
  • Have valid FBI numbers that could be located in criminal history repositories (in at least one state, the District of Columbia, or federal records)

Key Findings

  • The rearrest rate for drug trafficking offenders released in 2010 was similar to the rate for those released in 2005 despite intervening changes in the criminal justice system: the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker, adjustments to sentencing of crack cocaine offenses, and increased use of evidence-based practices in federal supervision.
  • The rearrest rate for a new offense or an alleged violation of supervision conditions was similar for drug trafficking offenders (47.9%) as compared to all other offenders released in 2010 (50.4%).
  • Of those drug trafficking offenders released in 2010 who were rearrested, the median time from re-entry to the first rearrest was 23 months. By comparison, the median time from re-entry to the first rearrest for all other offenders was 16 months.
  • Crack cocaine trafficking offenders were rearrested at the highest rate (57.8%) of any drug type, while powder cocaine trafficking offenders were rearrested at the lowest rate (41.8%). Rearrest rates for other primary drug types ranged from 42.7 percent to 46.7 percent.
  • Approximately one-third (32.0%) of drug trafficking offenders who were rearrested had drug-related offenses (either drug trafficking, drug possession, or another drug offense) as their most serious new charge at rearrest. Nearly one-fifth (19.9%) were charged with assault at rearrest.
  • Criminal history was strongly correlated with rearrest. Drug trafficking offenders’ rearrest rates ranged from 29.9 percent for offenders with zero criminal history points to 74.9 percent for offenders with 13 or more criminal history points.
  • Age at release into the community also was strongly correlated with likelihood of rearrest. Drug trafficking offenders released prior to age 21 had the highest rearrest rate of 70.1 percent, while drug trafficking offenders who were 60 years or older at the time of release had the lowest rearrest rate of 16.4 percent.
  • Over an eight-year follow-up period, 47.9 percent of drug trafficking offenders in the 2010 release cohort were rearrested compared to 50.0 percent of drug trafficking offenders in the 2005 release cohort.

January 12, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 27, 2021

Early preview of SCOTUS cases considering criminal convictions for doctors opioid prescribing practices

I briefly noted the interesting federal criminal drug cases that the Supreme Court took up in early November in this post.  With the top-side briefs now being submitted to SCOTUS, this local press article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court will hear case of Alabama doctor who prescribed powerful opioids," provides a somewhat fuller preview. Here are excerpts:

Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have agreed to hear the appeal of an Alabama pain doctor convicted of running a pill mill, a case that could change how federal prosecutors handle opioid cases.  A federal judge in 2017 sentenced Dr. Xiulu Ruan of Mobile to 21 years in prison for several charges including drug distribution and money laundering related to operations at Physicians Pain Specialists of Alabama.  Ruan appealed his conviction last year to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but lost.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to hear Ruan’s appeal.

The doctor claims his prescriptions of fentanyl and other opioids were supposed to help patients with severe pain.  In a brief, his lawyers said physicians should not risk arrest and prosecution for unconventional treatments when other approaches have failed.  In Ruan’s case, he prescribed fentanyl approved for patients with cancer pain to people suffering from back, neck and joint pain, according to the U.S. Department of Justice....

Ruan’s appeal has been consolidated with another case, Dr. Shakeel Kahn, who practiced in Arizona and Wyoming.  Both men were found guilty of violating the federal Controlled Substances Act and said juries were not allowed to consider a “good faith” defense, which is aimed at protecting doctors trying to help patients.  The supreme court could uphold his conviction or send his case back to trial.

Ruan’s criminal trial lasted seven weeks in 2017 and featured testimony from patients who supported the doctor and family members who said loved ones received dangerous doses of addictive painkillers.  Prosecutors acknowledged that many patients received good care at the two clinics, but said some prescriptions fell far outside the norm.  Ruan and another practitioner at the clinic, Dr. John Patrick Couch, were among the nation’s top prescribers of fentanyl painkillers.  Couch was also convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.  He has also appealed his case.

In its response, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice said Ruan prescribed much higher rates of opioids than other doctors and earned more than $4 million as a result. Ruan and his partner issued almost 300,000 prescriptions for controlled substances, they wrote. Prosecutors said Ruan had deep ties to drug companies that created fentanyl medications. After his conviction, they seized assets that included exotic cars, residential and commercial property....

In his brief, Ruan’s attorney wrote that Physicians Pain Specialists of Alabama did not operate as pill mills. The clinics only accepted patients with insurance, refused cash payment and used diagnostic tools to find the sources of patients’ pain.  Only patients with intractable pain received fentanyl, Ruan testified at his trial. “He also testified that the medication was a ‘lifesaver’ for patients who would otherwise ‘have to go to [the] ER’ during such an episode,” the brief said.

Pain patients have criticized crackdowns on pain clinics and doctors.  Compassion & Choices, an organization that advocates for dying patients, submitted a brief in support of Ruan. “Medical practitioners prescribing opioids to such patients in good faith are not drug pushers under the Act,” according to the Compassion & Choices brief.  “Practitioners thus should not have to suffer the specter of criminal liability simply for treating such patients at such a vulnerable, critical, and private time in their lives.”...

Arguments in Ruan’s case are scheduled for March 1, 2022.

The briefing in Ruan v. US, No. 20-1410, is available at this SCOTUSblog link, and the brief from the defense sets up the issue this way in its Introduction:

To ensure that licensed medical professionals do not risk criminal prosecution and felony conviction based on simple malpractice, nearly all courts, construing the CSA and the implementing regulations, require that the government prove that the physician lacked a good faith basis for her prescription.  See Pet. 4-5, 18-27.  But not the Eleventh Circuit. According to the court of appeals, a doctor may be convicted under the CSA if her prescription fell outside of professional norms — without regard to whether she believed in good faith that the prescription served a bona fide medical purpose.  That outlier position, if sustained, would result in the kind of “sweeping expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction” that this Court has repeatedly condemned. Kelly v. United States, 140 S. Ct. 1565, 1574 (2020) (quoting Cleveland v. United States, 531 U.S. 12, 24 (2000)); see also Bond v. United States, 572 U.S. 844, 862-865 (2014). It would also chill medical progress, disrupt the doctor-patient relationship, and criminalize prescriptions whenever a lay jury is persuaded that the physician exceeded the “usual” practice of medicine.

Though these cases are formally about the standards for criminal liability for these doctors, there are sentencing stories lurking here.  First, of course, are the high sentencing stakes for any doctors found guilty of illegal drug distribution.  Decades-long federal sentences are common — but not at all consistent as Prof Adam M. Gershowitz has detailed — and local press indicates federal prosecutors wanted sentences considerably longer than the two decades given to Drs. Ruan and Couch.  But why might such extreme prison terms be needed, given that, once these doctors lose their prescribing licenses, they are functionally unable to repeat their crimes and their risk of recidivism is very low at their age?  Simply put, some vision of retribution must be driving the severity of the sense, especially since deterrence of doctors is likely achieved by any criminal prosecutions and over-deterrence seems like a real risk here.

In the end, the fact that the sentencing stakes are so high likely helps explain why these cases got the Supreme Court's attention.  And the debate over the whether the law requires proving a lack of good faith would, in a sense, get the the heart of the retributivist question of just how blameworthy these doctors really are.  For all those reasons (and others), when oral argument takes place in a couple months, I will be interested to see if any Justices bring up any of the sentencing issues lurking beneath these cases. 

Prior related post:

December 27, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 17, 2021

Sixth Circuit reversal of denial of compassionate release shows how appellate review can sometimes reduce sentencing disparities

A few months ago in this post I flagged a lengthy CNN article discussing disparities in who was receiving compassionate release sentencing reductions in federal courts.  That CNN article featured the case of Horacio Estrada-Elias, an ill 90-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for marijuana trafficking crime, who had his request for compassionate release denied by Judge Danny Reeves in July 2021.  I was pleased to learn this week about notable updates to this story, reported in this new CNN piece headlined "A 90-year-old was serving life for marijuana despite serious illness. Now he's going home."   Here are some of the details:

In a dramatic reversal, a 90-year-old, seriously ill federal inmate serving life in prison for a nonviolent marijuana trafficking crime will go free after a judge granted him compassionate release on Tuesday -- overturning his previous order denying release.  Horacio Estrada-Elias, who was the subject of a CNN investigative story in September, is set to be freed this week after more than a dozen years behind bars....

Estrada-Elias suffers from congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation and chronic kidney disease, and also contracted the coronavirus while in prison, according to court affidavits filed by doctors.  His prison doctor predicted in April 2020 that he had "less than 18 months" to live, and his warden recommended release, noting his spotless disciplinary record and writing last year that "he has been diagnosed with an incurable, progressive illness in which he will not recover."

Federal Judge Danny Reeves denied Estrada-Elias' motion for compassionate release in July, arguing that a life sentence is "the only sentence that would be appropriate."  But last month, an appeals court ordered Reeves to reconsider.  Two judges on a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that Reeves had "abused (his) discretion" by ignoring the fact that Estrada-Elias is unlikely to reoffend and "overly emphasizing" his nonviolent crimes. One judge dissented.

On Tuesday, the day after the formal appeal mandate was transmitted to his court, Reeves issued a new opinion approving compassionate release.  "The defendant's medical condition constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason for release... when considered in conjunction with the defendant's advanced age," Reeves wrote, reducing Estrada-Elias' sentence to time served....

Reeves has an especially tough record on compassionate release, rejecting the vast majority of more than 100 release motions that came before him since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a CNN analysis of court records.  In his earlier opinion, he had argued that the large volume of marijuana that Estrada-Elias trafficked had shown "a flagrant disrespect for the law that can only be reflected in an equally severe sentence."

His reversal "seems to be rooted in common sense and human dignity as opposed to legal formalities," said Alison Guernsey, a University of Iowa law professor who has studied compassionate release cases and reviewed Reeves' opinion.  She said it is uncommon for inmates who are denied compassionate release to win on appeal.

Estrada-Elias was sentenced to life in April 2008 after pleading guilty to a conspiracy to traffic tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana into and around the United States. Reeves, who handled his case, was required to give him a life sentence because he had previous drug convictions.  But the mandatory minimum law that applied was taken off the books in 2018.  If Estrada-Elias hadn't been subject to the mandatory minimum, the guideline for his sentence range would have been about 12 to 16 years in prison, according to court documents.

Estrada-Elias' case is an example of the wide disparities across the country in compassionate release during the pandemic.  In 2020 and the first half of 2021, some federal courts granted more than 40 percent of compassionate release motions in their districts, while others granted less than 3 percent, according to data from the US Sentencing Commission -- even though judges in all of the districts are applying the same laws, which allow compassionate release in "extraordinary and compelling" cases.

In Estrada-Elias' district, the Eastern District of Kentucky, judges granted about 6% of compassionate release motions, the data shows. Guernsey, the law professor, said the vast disparity in grant rates between courts "really calls into question the equity of compassionate release." "It appears to depend not on the gravity of your medical condition or the type of extraordinary and compelling circumstances that will dictate whether you're released," she said, "but almost a fluke of geography."

As the title of this post is meant to highlight, I think appellate review can and should play a significant role in reducing extreme sentencing outcomes that seem like a "fluke of geography." Notably, Justice Breyer's opinion for the Supreme Court in the remedial section of Booker stated that appellate review for reasonableness "would tend to iron out sentencing differences," but harsh sentencing outcomes are almost never reversed as unreasonable.  The panel Sixth Circuit opinion in US v. Estrada-Elias, No. 21-5680 (6th Cir. Nov. 24, 2021) (available here), which is unpublished(!?!) and a split decision, is a real rarity that shows reasonableness review can function to improve equity.  The majority opinion in this case starts this way:

Horacio Raul Estrada-Elias, a ninety-year-old man suffering from a terminal illness, appeals the district court’s order denying his motion for compassionate release filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  Estrada-Elias has spent fifteen years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana.  Because of his illness, Estrada-Elias is bedridden.  He has never been convicted of a violent crime and has not received a single disciplinary infraction in prison.  The warden of the prison in which Estrada-Elias is incarcerated agrees that Estrada-Elias should be released from custody.  Despite Estrada-Elias’s age, illness, incapacity, and lack of any violent convictions, the district court denied his compassionate-release motion, finding that life in prison is “the only sentence that would be appropriate and that would protect the public” from this ninety-year-old terminally ill grandfather. R. 210 (Dist. Ct. Order at 14) (Page ID #2214) (quotation omitted).  We hold that the district court abused its discretion in denying Estrada-Elias’s compassionate-release motion.

December 17, 2021 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Recidiviz forecasts federal marijuana legalization would reduce "federal prison population by 2,807 over 5 years"

Recidiviz has this notable new data analysis titled "Ending Federal Prison Sentences for Marijuana Offenses."  Here is part of its text:

Ending federal marijuana prohibition specifically, ceasing federal prison commitments for marijuana-related offenses could reduce incarceration costs by $571.8M and the federal prison population by 2,807 over 5 years. The policy is also projected to divert roughly 1,120 people from being sent to federal prison each year....

In spite of these shifts in public opinion and state law, marijuana is still prohibited at the federal level, and more than 3,000 individuals are currently serving marijuana-related sentences in federal prison.  Significant racial disparities exist in federal marijuana sentencing; an estimated 60% of people serving time in federal prison for marijuana offenses are of Hispanic descent, and over the past five years, 67% of individuals receiving prison sentences for marijuana offenses were Hispanic.


While the rate of prison sentencing for federal marijuana offenses has declined substantially in the past five years, individuals incarcerated for federal marijuana offenses still face an average sentence of approximately 38 months.  Furthermore, nearly 1 in 4 individuals incarcerated under federal marijuana trafficking offenses will face
reincarceration.

December 5, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 03, 2021

"Moral Panic and the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now available at SSRN authored by Phil Lord.  Here is its abstract:

This Article analyzes the War on Drugs as a social phenomenon. It argues that such an analysis, which rejects the assumption that collective, institutionalized behavior is generally rational, can help us understand key aspects of why we continue to marginalize disadvantaged individuals.  If the War on Drugs is a war and wars are won or lost, there is no question we lost.  Whatever drug-related evil that war sought to eradicate, whether drug consumption, trafficking, or addiction, the data clearly shows that “drugs won.”

Along the way, we nonetheless persisted — and largely still do. We filled prisons, lost lives, and shattered hopes and dreams.  Those we hurt the most were already marginalized.  To state that we lost is unhelpful and insufficient.  Of course, we did.  And we can draw obvious lessons that medicine and psychology work better than carceral institutions and that no one benefits from marginalizing already marginalized and often sick individuals. 

If the War on Drugs never worked, more salient questions are to be asked about why we fought it. This Article posits that the War on Drugs is not about drugs, crime, or addiction: it is about us.  It is about why we cede to fear, anxiety, and irrationality. It is about why we stigmatize and hurt the most vulnerable. Like other irrational and counterproductive policies, the War on Drugs is not an anomaly.  It bears close resemblance to other wars we fought (and fight) against the disempowered: witches, gays, Muslims, and others.

December 3, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (25)

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

El Chapo's wife sentenced to three years in federal prison (guidelines be damned)

This Vice article provides a thorough accounting of a notable federal sentencing with this rousing start: "Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera became infamous for daring jailbreaks in Mexico only to end up serving life in prison in the United States. Now his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, has managed to avoid a similar fate."  Here is more from the piece: 

The 32-year-old Coronel was sentenced Tuesday to just three years in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to charges that she helped her husband run his drug trafficking empire, facilitated one of his prison escapes in Mexico, and violated U.S. sanctions by spending his illicit fortune. She also paid nearly $1.5 million to the U.S. government.

It could have ended much worse for Coronel, who faced up to 14 years for her crimes under federal sentencing guidelines.  Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., asked her judge for leniency, calling for her to serve just four years behind bars and fueling speculation that she’d struck a deal to cooperate.

Coronel’s attorneys and federal prosecutors made the case to sentencing Judge Rudolph Contreras that she only played a minimal role in the cartel and that her crimes were committed simply because she was married to El Chapo. “The defendant was not an organizer, leader, boss, or other type of manager,” prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said. “Rather, she was a cog in a very large wheel of a criminal organization.”

A soft-spoken Coronel addressed the court in Spanish before the judge handed down the sentence, asking for forgiveness and making a plea for leniency so that she could be free to raise her 10-year-old twin daughters, who were fathered by El Chapo....

The light sentence has raised eyebrows among ex-prosecutors who handled similar cases against high-level drug traffickers and their associates.  “Downward departure,” or a sentence below the range called for by federal guidelines, is typically reserved for individuals who agree to assist the government in some capacity, David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, told VICE News.  “They’re treating her like a cooperator,” said Weinstein, who now works as a defense attorney.  “These are the types of circumstances where people are involved in large-scale drug trafficking conspiracies and are benefiting the kingpin and helping the kingpin. You usually don’t get downward departure unless you’re providing substantial assistance.”

Coronel, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico, was taken into custody by FBI agents on Feb. 22 after arriving at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.  While federal authorities announced that Coronel had been “arrested,” sources familiar with her case told VICE News she was aware of pending charges against her and came to turn herself in.

Coronel has been held since February at a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, and is now expected to be transferred into the federal prison system to serve out her sentence. She will receive credit for time served and could be released in just over two years.

If prosecutors truly believed Coronel had only played a minimal role and was merely El Chapo’s wife, it's unclear why she was even charged in the first place because her prosecution would be a waste of time and resources, according to Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York.  Klapper, now in private practice, said Coronel’s sentence “is a very clear demonstration of how prosecutors can manipulate the sentencing guidelines to either punish or reward a defendant.”...

In sentencing Coronel, Judge Contreras noted that putting her behind bars for a long time would do little to dissuade anyone else from joining the Sinaloa Cartel. In fact, he said, there was little indication that prosecuting El Chapo had any impact on the cartel’s operations.  “One can make a plausible argument that even the removal of Guzmán from the conspiracy has not resulted in a reduction of harm to the public,” the judge said. “There appears to be no shortage of replacements to fill the defendant’s slot in the organization.”

Contreras noted Coronel’s “impoverished” upbringing and the involvement of her family members in the drug trade, and indicated that he believed that she was a victim of her circumstances who was very young and impressionable when she married El Chapo. “I hope you raise your twins in a different environment than you’ve experienced to date,” Contreras said in his parting words to Coronel. “Good luck.”

This article is astute to note how this case highlights "manipulation" of the federal sentencing guidelines and sentencing outcomes. Indeed, the Government's sentencing memo in the case showcases how the guidelines can function more like a parlor game than as a steady guide to sensible sentencing.  According to that memo, Coronel's PSR initially "concluded that the Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range in this case was 135 months to 168 months ... [and] neither the Government nor the Defendant objected to this Guidelines calculation."  But, sometime thereafter, the Government decided "that Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range is 57 to 71 months in prison ... [and] Defendant and the Probation Office concur."

In other words, everyone in this case first determined that the guidelines recommended 11+ to 14 years in prison, but then later everyone decided the guidelines recommended less than half that length of time.  And then, guidelines be damned, the government decided to recommend a sentence of 48 months (nine months below the low end of the lower guideline range).  And then Judge Contreras decided that 36 months was a sufficient sentence. 

Of course, one might reasonably expect the guidelines to be a poor "fit" for this kind of unique case with its many unique elements.  But, then again, a quarter century ago in Koon v. US, 518 U.S. 81 (1996), the Supreme Court rightly made this closing observation: "It has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue."

November 30, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Two exciting DEPC events on tap in coming days

I am pleased to be able to promote here a couple of online events scheduled this week and next organized by OSU's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (which I help direct).  I am quite excited about both events, and here are the titles and short descriptions (with a link to see the panelists and to register):

"Addressing Harm: Opioid Settlement Background and Historical Context"

Date: Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021    Time:  Noon - 1:15 p.m. (Register here)

The opioid epidemic that has swept across the United States in the last decade has had a devastating impact on individuals as well as their families and communities. While the true cost of the epidemic is most likely incalculable, states and local governments have fought hard to seek damages from various companies along the opioid supply chain to help address the resulting crises plaguing their communities.

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and Harm Reduction Ohio for the first panel in a series on Ohio's opioid settlement.  The purpose of this panel is to understand how opioid litigation was pursued and the settlements that resulted. The panel will look back at similar litigation, such as the tobacco settlement, to see how the current settlement compares to earlier public health litigation and what lessons can be learned.

"Cannabis Crossroads: What’s in Store for Marijuana Reform in Ohio?"

Date: Friday, Nov. 19, 2021    Time:  Noon - 1:30 p.m. (Register here)

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and Natural Therapies Education Foundation for a virtual discussion featuring panelists representing current Ohio cannabis reform endeavors. The event will provide attendees with knowledge about pending initiatives and legislation, as well as a vision of what the future may hold for cannabis in Ohio.

November 9, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 05, 2021

SCOTUS grants cert on two (consolidated) cases to consider physician criminal liability for unlawfully dispensing prescription drugs

The Supreme Court this afternoon issued this new short order list that grants certiorari in a few new cases, including a (consolidated) pair of criminal matters involving whether and when doctors can be criminal liable for unlawfully dispensing prescription drugs.  The two cases are Ruan v. US, No. 20-1410, and Kahn v. US, No. 21-5261, and here is the question presented in the first of these:

Whether a physician alleged to have prescribed controlled substances outside the usual course of professional practice may be convicted of unlawful distribution under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) without regard to whether, in good faith, he “reasonably believed” or “subjectively intended” that his prescriptions fall within that course of professional practice.

November 5, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Checking in with Oregon's drug decriminalization effort one year in

Stateline has this effective piece, headlined "Oregon’s Drug Decriminalization May Spread, Despite Unclear Results," providing an update of sorts on Oregon's experience one year after a ballot initiative enacted statewide drug decriminalization.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Progressive lawmakers and civil rights groups want more states to follow Oregon’s recent example and drop criminal penalties for carrying small amounts of heroin, cocaine or other drugs, and to spend more money on addiction recovery services.  They say substance use disorder should be treated as a disease, rather than as a crime.

Democratic lawmakers in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont all proposed decriminalization bills this year.  Advocacy groups hope to get a decriminalization measure on the ballot in Washington in 2022 and in California in 2024, said Matt Sutton, director of public relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit.  The Drug Policy Alliance helped fund the ballot initiative that resulted in Oregon’s new law, which took effect in February.

But Oregon’s experience shows that it’s easier to eliminate criminal penalties than to ramp up behavioral health services and get more people to use them.  In fact, critics of decriminalization say such policies could decrease access to treatment, because fewer low-level offenders will be pushed into court-ordered programs....

The law will use marijuana tax revenue — plus any criminal justice money saved through decriminalization — to fund organizations that help people seek and maintain sobriety. Those services could include peer support groups and transitional housing programs. Such organizations will get about $300 million over the next two years [which is estimated to be] about five times the amount Oregon is currently spending on services that aren’t provided through Medicaid, the public health insurance program for people who have low incomes or disabilities. About $30 million already has been disbursed....

Drug arrests and convictions have plummeted in Oregon since February.  The ballot measure made possessing small amounts of drugs — such as less than a gram of heroin, or less than two grams of cocaine — a civil citation punishable by a $100 fine rather than a crime.  It also downgraded felony charges to misdemeanors for possessing slightly larger amounts.

The measure established a hotline that people whom police ticket for possession can call to undergo a health assessment.  If they complete the assessment, they can get their citations waived, even without further treatment or other services.  The law also requires the state to establish addiction recovery centers to connect people who use drugs with treatment or other assistance, such as housing or overdose prevention education.

Before decriminalization, in 2019, Oregon law enforcement officers made more than 6,700 arrests and courts issued more than 4,000 convictions for drug possession in cases where possession was the most serious potential charge, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission....  Between February and August this year, law enforcement made 1,800 arrests for such possession crimes and courts issued 364 convictions.  Defendants most likely were arrested for carrying large amounts of drugs or for drug dealing offenses, said Ken Sanchagrin, executive director of the commission. 

Decriminalization doesn’t appear to be leading to a rise in drug-related crime, such as property crime.  Property crimes in the state actually decreased this year, according to data provided by the criminal justice commission and the judicial department.

It’s less clear whether decriminalization has led more people to seek help for substance use disorders.  Defendants failed to show up in court to make their case against about half of 1,300 citations issued through September for possession of small amounts of drugs, according to the Oregon Judicial Department.  In only seven cases did defendants submit a health assessment to get their fines waived.  To critics of the new law, the seldom-used hotline proves that decriminalization isn’t working....

Policymakers nationwide likely will be watching Oregon for policy insights, said Beau Kilmer, director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corporation, a California-based research group.  But the Oregon law is so new — and is being implemented at such an unusual time, during a global pandemic — that it’s hard to tell whether it’s working as intended, he said.  “I suspect voters in other states will be considering this before we have hard evidence on it.”

November 4, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

First published papers from "Understanding Drug Sentencing" now available in latest issue of Federal Sentencing Reporter

A little over a year ago, I highlighted this call for papers relating to the "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment" event that I took place last month.  The original plan was to publish papers just in the Spring 2022 symposium edition of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.  A set of longer pieces will be appearing in that volume, but response to the call was so great that we arranged for the Federal Sentencing Reporter to also serve as a home for these works.  And I am quite pleased to see that the latest FSR issue is now available here online this with great line up of pieces: 

"Sentencing Drug Offenders Justly While Reducing Mass Incarceration" by Hon. Lynn Adelman

"Supporting Responsive Federal Drug Sentencing Through Education in the Workshop on Science-Informed Decision Making" by Hon. Nancy Gertner, Dr. Judith Edersheim, Dr. Robert Kinscherff & Cassandra Snyder

"Sentencing Federal Drug Offenders: Evidence of Judicial Activism" by Melissa Hamilton

"Crack 2.0: Federal Methamphetamine Sentencing Policy, the Crack/Meth Sentencing Disparity, and the Meth/Meth-Mixture Ratio — Why Drug Type, Quantity, and Purity Remain 'Incredibly Poor Proxies' for Sentencing Culpability Under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b) and U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1." by Lex A. Coleman

"Why Are Federal Meth Sentences Getting Longer?" by Jake J. Smith

"Sentencing to Drug Court: Tailoring the Program to the Participant Through Judicial Education and Oversight" by Lizett Martinez Schreiber

"Public Support for Using “Second Chance” Mechanisms to Reconsider Long-Term Prison Sentences for Drug Crimes" by Colleen M. Berryessa

"A History of Early Drug Sentences in California: Racism, Rightism, Repeat" by Sarah Brady Siff

November 3, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 28, 2021

BJS releases "Federal Justice Statistics, 2019" with immigration and drugs dominating federal dockets

Via email this morning I learned of the release of this notable new data report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics titled simply "Federal Justice Statistics, 2019."  The email summarized the report this way:

This report, the 33rd in an annual series which began in 1979, provides national statistics on the federal response to crime. It describes case processing in the federal criminal justice system for fiscal year 2019, including—

  • investigations by U.S. attorneys
  • prosecutions and declinations
  • convictions and acquittals
  • sentencing
  • pretrial release
  • detention
  • appeals
  • probation and parole
  • prisons.

Findings are based on BJS’s Federal Justice Statistics Program (FJSP).  The FJSP collects, standardizes, and reports on administrative data from six federal justice agencies: the U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Covering a period from Oct. 1 2018 to Sept. 30, 2019, this report captures the last full yearly snapshot of the federal criminal justice system before COVID hit in early 2020.  And, though federal data always reveal that the modern federal justice system is focused particularly on immigration and drug cases, these new data from the report still paint a notable picture of our federal criminal justice system in operation while highlighting how arrest patterns and sentencing patterns diverge for the two biggest crime categories:

During FY 2019, 8 in 10 federal arrests were for immigration, drug, or supervision violations (165,123). Immigration (117,425 arrests) was the most common arrest offense in FY 2019.  More than half (57%) of federal arrests involved an immigration offense as the most serious arrest offense.  The next most common arrest offenses were for drug offenses (12% of all arrests) and supervision violations (11%)....

In FY 2019, a total of 58,886 federally sentenced persons were admitted to federal prison.  Of these, 45,425 entered federal prison on U.S. district court commitments.  Another 13,461 persons were returned to federal prison for violating conditions of probation, parole, or supervised release, or were admitted for a reason other than a U.S. district court commitment.  In FY 2019, 21,075 persons entered federal prison for drug offenses, most of whom (15,574, or 74%) had been sentenced to more than 1 year.

In 2009 and 2019, most people in federal prison were serving time for a drug offense.  Persons with a drug offense as the most serious commitment offense made up 47% of the prison population at fiscal year-end 2019, down from 53% at fiscal year-end 2009.  Persons serving time for a weapon offense increased from 15% of the prison population in 2009 to 19% in 2019.  Persons serving time for a violent offense remained at 6% in 2009 and 2019, and persons serving time for an immigration offense decreased from 12% in 2009 to 6% in 2019.

October 28, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Is it foolish to hope, after now 35 years, that Congress will soon fix the crack-powder federal sentencing disparity?

My twitter feed this morning was full with folks noting that today marks officially a full 35 years(!) since Congress enacted the notorious 100-1 crack/powder cocaine ratio disparity.  The full story of 35 years of federal crack sentencing injustice and dysfunction cannot be recounted in a blog post.  But a few highlights document that a complete fix is long in the making, long overdue, and cannot come to soon. 

The US Sentencing Commission sent a report to Congress in 1995  — 26 years ago! —  highlight the myriad flaws with the crack-powder sentence scheme and proposed guidelines changes to partially fix the 100:1 crack/powder disparity by adopting a 1:1 quantity ratio at the powder cocaine level.  But Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation rejecting the USSC’s proposed guideline changes (see basics here and here), thereby ensuring decades of disproportionately severe crack sentences and extreme racial inequities in cocaine offense punishments.

Barack Obama gave a 2007 campaign speech assailing the crack/powder disparity, and in 2009 the Obama Justice Department advocated for "Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity."  Despite strong DOJ advocacy for a 1:1 ratio in April 2009, it still took Congress more than a year to enact only a partial reduction in crack sentences rather than the parity advocated by the USSC in 1995 and by DOJ in 2009.  Specifically, the Fair Sentencing Act enshrined a new 18:1 crack/powder quantity disparity ratio into federal drug sentencing statutes and guidelines, and even this modest reform did not become fully retroactive until eight years later with the 2018 FIRST STEP Act.

Excitingly, as noted here, the US House voted 361-66 last month to pass the EQUAL Act to end, finally and completely, the statutory disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences.  In this new Hill commentary, Aamra Ahmad And Jeremiah Mosteller make the case that Congress should finally get this long overdue reform to the finish line.  Here is the start and end of their piece:

Thirty-five years ago today, while the country was still reeling from the tragic death of Len Bias — a University of Maryland basketball star who, just days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics, died from a drug overdose — Congress passed and President Reagan signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.  Assuming that the drug that killed Len was crack, Congress drafted a law that would impose harsher penalties on crack offenses.  It would impose the same mandatory prison sentence for five grams of crack cocaine as 500 grams of powder cocaine.  Even after it became known that the drug that killed Len was powder cocaine, not crack, the narrative had taken off that crack is more dangerous than powder, and Congress established the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine in federal law.

Over the years, this sentencing disparity has become emblematic of both the ineffectiveness of reactionary criminal justice policy and the racial disparities existing in our criminal justice system....

The EQUAL Act recently passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 361 to 66.  It is rare to see Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former Texas judge and nationally-recognized staunch conservative, agree with Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), one of the leading progressive voices in the leadership of the Democratic Party, on criminal justice reform, but that is just what happened on the House floor when they both spoke in support of the EQUAL Act.  It is now up to the Senate to pass this long-overdue legislation and send the EQUAL Act to President Biden’s desk for his signature.  Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are the sponsors of the Senate companion legislation (S. 79) and have taken the lead in building a coalition to pass this legislation during the 117th Congress.  The time is now for the Senate to take action and rectify this long-standing injustice in our criminal legal system.

A few prior recent related posts:

October 27, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

New report examines aftermath of Baltimore's no-prosecution policy for minor drug possession and prostitution

As reported in this new release, a "new report from researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Heath found that Baltimore’s no-prosecution policy for minor drug possession and prostitution, enacted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, led to fewer new low-level drug and prostitution arrests, almost no rearrests for serious crimes for those who had charges dropped, and fewer 911 calls."  Here is more:

The findings suggest the new policies did not result in increased public complaints about drug use or sex work, and that those who had charges dropped did not go on to commit serious crimes.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that Baltimore would stop prosecuting low-level drug and drug paraphernalia possession and prostitution in March 2020, chiefly as an infection-reduction measure at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  A year later she announced that the policy would remain in place — even after the pandemic winds down — as a way of reducing the burdens on city police and on the poorer, predominantly Black city residents who are traditionally arrested for such crimes....

The report’s key findings, covering the 14 months following the policy change (April 2020 to May 2021), include:

  • An estimated 443 new drug/paraphernalia-possession and prostitution arrests were averted as a result of the new no-prosecution policy, 78 percent of which were averted in the Black community. This analysis was based on Baltimore Police Department arrest data.
  • Of the 741 people whose drug and prostitution charges were dropped, six—less than 1 percent—had new arrests for serious crimes during the study period. This analysis was based on Maryland Courts Judicial Information System data.
  • Calls to 911 about drug/paraphernalia and prostitution declined significantly in the post-policy change period.

The full report, titled Evaluation of Prosecutorial Policy Reforms Eliminating Criminal Penalties for Drug Possession and Sex Work in Baltimore, Maryland,” is available at this link.

October 19, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Recordings of "Understanding Drug Sentencing" symposium’s panels now available

Regular readers surely recall various prior posts promoting the terrific conference organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and the Academy for Justice which took place earlier this month on October 7-8, 2021, titled "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."   I am now pleased to be able to report that Recordings for six of the Understanding Drug Sentencing symposium’s panels are now available on the event site here. You can also find recordings via the DEPC playlist on YouTube here.

October 19, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

"The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new publication by The Sentencing Project authored by Ashley Nellis.  Here are parts of the report's overview:

This report details our observations of staggering disparities among Black and Latinx people imprisoned in the United States given their overall representation in the general population.  The latest available data regarding people sentenced to state prison reveal that Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is roughly five times the rate of white Americans.  During the present era of criminal justice reform, not enough emphasis has been focused on ending racial and ethnic disparities systemwide.

Going to prison is a major life-altering event that creates obstacles to building stable lives in the community, such as gaining employment and finding stable and safe housing after release. Imprisonment also reduces lifetime earnings and negatively affects life outcomes among children of incarcerated parents.

These are individual-level consequences of imprisonment but there are societal level consequences as well: high levels of imprisonment in communities cause high crime rates and neighborhood deterioration, thus fueling greater disparities.  This cycle both individually and societally is felt disproportionately by people who are Black. It is clear that the outcome of mass incarceration today has not occurred by happenstance but has been designed through policies created by a dominant white culture that insists on suppression of others....

Truly meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system cannot be accomplished without acknowledgement of its racist underpinnings. Immediate and focused attention on the causes and consequences of racial disparities is required in order to eliminate them.  True progress towards a racially just system requires an understanding of the variation in racial and ethnic inequities in imprisonment across states and the policies and day-to-day practices that drive these inequities.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans.
  • Nationally, one in 81 Black adults per 100,000 in the U.S. is serving time in state prison.  Wisconsin leads the nation in Black imprisonment rates; one of every 36 Black Wisconsinites is in prison.
  • In 12 states, more than half the prison population is Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
  • Seven states maintain a Black/white disparity larger than 9 to 1: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
  • Latinx individuals are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 1.3 times the incarceration rate of whites.  Ethnic disparities are highest in Massachusetts, which reports an ethnic differential of 4.1:1.

RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Eliminate mandatory sentences for all crimes.  Mandatory minimum sentences, habitual offender laws, and mandatory transfer of juveniles to the adult criminal system give prosecutors too much authority while limiting the discretion of impartial judges.  These policies contributed to a substantial increase in sentence length and time served in prison, disproportionately imposing unduly harsh sentences on Black and Latinx individuals.

2. Require prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statutes.  The Sentencing Project urges states to adopt forecasting estimates that will calculate the impact of proposed crime legislation on different populations in order to minimize or eliminate the racially disparate impacts of certain laws and policies.  Several states have passed “racial impact statement” laws.  To undo the racial and ethnic disparity resulting from decades of tough-on-crime policies, however, states should also repeal existing racially biased laws and policies.  The impact of racial impact laws will be modest at best if they remain only forward looking.

3. Decriminalize low-level drug offenses.  Discontinue arrest and prosecutions for low-level drug offenses which often lead to the accumulation of prior convictions which accumulate disproportionately in communities of color.  These convictions generally drive further and deeper involvement in the criminal legal system.

October 13, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 11, 2021

Terrific review of some ugly realities of stash-house stings

I hope readers recall the series of posts from a few years ago authored by 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.  Those posts (which are linked below with a few others) provides one look at one ugly part of the drug war represented by stash-house sting.  And now Rachel Poser has this great lengthy article in the newest issue of The New Yorker discussing the stash house sting story as part of the broader realities of undercover law enforcement operations.

The article is worth a full read, and its title highlights its themes: "Stash-House Stings Carry Real Penalties for Fake Crimes; The undercover operations seem like entrapment, but their targets can receive long sentences — sometimes even harsher than those for genuine crimes."  Here is a small excerpt: 

In the past four decades, sting operations of all types have become a major part of law enforcement in the United States, and stash-house stings are perhaps the most extreme example of this trend, because of the harsh penalties they carry. They can result in longer sentences than real crimes of a similar nature....  No judge is required to sign a warrant, and law-enforcement officials do not have to provide any evidence that a person is already engaged in criminal activity before initiating an undercover investigation....

The A.T.F. claims that stash-house stings catch established crews who already have the means to commit armed robbery. “If we wanted to go out and cast a wide net, we could do one of these a week — that’s not what we want to do,” an agent said in 2014, according to the Los Angeles Times.  “This technique is designed to take trigger-pullers off the streets.” Through the years, the A.T.F. has targeted many men with long and violent criminal histories, some of whom have shown up on the day of the robbery armed with assault rifles and bulletproof vests....

Nevertheless, the agency has also ensnared low-level offenders, and even people with no criminal records.  I reviewed thousands of pages of court transcripts from more than a dozen stash-house cases and found that many of the so-called crews were haphazard groups of family members, acquaintances, or strangers thrown together at the last minute, as targets scrambled to find willing participants. Suspects in these cases frequently asked the undercover agents for help distributing cocaine or obtaining guns....

As large numbers of stash-house cases made their way to court, some judges began to voice concern about the A.T.F.’s tactics.  “In this era of mass incarceration, in which we already lock up more of our population than any other nation on Earth,” Stephen Reinhardt, a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote in 2014, “it is especially curious that the government feels compelled to invent fake crimes and imprison people for long periods of time for agreeing to participate in them.”  But the difficulty of proving entrapment, combined with mandatory minimums for drugs, left judges little choice but to affirm the convictions.  “You guys are dragging half a million dollars through a poor neighborhood,” William Fletcher, another Ninth Circuit judge, said the same year.  “Now, the law’s the law and I’m going to follow it, but I think you guys are making a mistake.”

Some prior related posts:

October 11, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Still time to register for day two of "Understanding Drug Sentencing" conference

I really enjoyed the first day of the two-day conference being put on by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and the Academy for Justice today and tomorrow, titled "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."  With a second day still to go, folks can still register for all of of Friday events, on this Agenda page.  Here are times and titles for the three great panels scheduled for Friday, October 8: 

11am – 12:15pm:   Sentencing Criteria as Crazymaker in Drug Cases

12:20pm – 1:35pm:   Reimagining an Antiracist Approach to Drug Sentencing

1:45pm – 3pm:   What Other Alternatives? Thinking Beyond Drug Courts and Sentencing

I thought day one of the symposium was terrific, and it included the "Inaugural 2021 Menard Family Lecture on Drug Policy and Criminal Justice" with former US Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., author and advocate Piper Kerman, Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley for the Southern District of Ohio.  I am pretty sure recordings of that great discussion, as well as all the other panels, should be available online before too long.  In the meantime, Kyle Jaeger at Marijuana Moment has this new piece discussing and contextualizing former AG Holder's comments under the headlined "Former U.S. Attorney General Says U.S. Is ‘On The Path’ To Federal Marijuana Decriminalization." 

October 7, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

New California law to end mandatory minimum terms for many non-violent drug offenses

Ironically, I have been so busy this week with this on-going conference about drug sentencing, I am just now getting a chance to blog about the drug sentencing news from California discussed in this local article headlined "Gov. Newsom Signs Bill Ending Mandatory Minimum Sentences For Many Non-Violent Drug Crimes." Here are details:

Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that ends mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes on Tuesday, giving judges more individual discretion on punishing criminals.

Senate Bill 73, authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), ends the prohibition against probation and suspended sentencing for drug crimes, including possessing more than 14.25 grams of illegal drugs, agreeing to sell or transport opiates or opium derivatives, planting or cultivating peyote, some forging or altering prescription crimes, and other similar non-violent drug-related crimes.

According to SB 73, the bill would not end the ability of judges to administer mandatory minimum length jail sentences. It would also not end laws that require jail time for many other drug offenses or remove probation ineligibility for those who had previously committed drug felonies.

Senator Wiener wrote the bill earlier this year to better address drug addiction treatment and to stop mass non-violent crime imprisonments. “Our prisons and jails are filled with people, particularly from communities of color, who have committed low-level, nonviolent drug offenses and who would be much better served by non-carceral options like probation, rehabilitation and treatment,” Wiener said in a statement on Tuesday. “It’s an important measure that will help end California’s system of mass incarceration.”...

However, law enforcement groups reiterated on Tuesday and Wednesday that the removal of mandatory minimums would lead to side effects such as an increase of drug use, a rise in drug sales, and a rise in drug-related crimes.  “SB 73 sets a dangerous precedent and would jeopardize the health and safety of the communities we are sworn to protect,” said the California Police Chiefs Association in response to the signing.

October 7, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Still time to register for "Understanding Drug Sentencing" conference former AG Eric Holder and Piper Kerman keynote

I first noted here the conference organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and the Academy for Justice set for October 7-8, 2021, titled "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."  On the eve of the event, folks can still register separately for each of the events on Thursday, for all Friday events, on the Agenda page

As the agenda page details, day one of the symposium includes the "Inaugural 2021 Menard Family Lecture on Drug Policy and Criminal Justice" on Thursday, October 7 from 12:30-2pm EDT.  The Inaugural 2021 Menard Family Lecture on Drug Policy and Criminal Justice will feature Eric H. Holder, Jr., former Attorney General of the United States, and Piper Kerman, social justice advocate and author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” with special guests Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley for the Southern District of Ohio.

October 6, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 04, 2021

REMINDER: This week for "Understanding Drug Sentencing" conference feature keynote with former AG Eric Holder and Piper Kerman

Understanding-Drug-Sentencing_for-web_update-768x281I flagged here a few weeks ago the conference organized by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and the Academy for Justice which is now only days away as it is set for October 7-8, 2021.  This event formally titled "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment," and I will here note again the main event page and this overview:

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and the Academy for Justice October 7-8, 2021 to explore the myriad issues surrounding drug sentencing and its contribution to mass incarceration and mass punishment during this major symposium.  In addition to academics, researchers, and advocates discussing sound drug sentencing policies, this event also includes judges, current and former prosecutors, defense attorneys, and justice-involved individuals sharing their perspectives on drug sentencing practices.  The symposium will take place virtually.

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

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

Registration

Separate registrations are provided for each day’s events.  Attendees may register separately for each of the events on Thursday, for all Friday events, or both.  See the Agenda page for details and registration links.

As the agenda page details, on day one of the symposium includes the "Inaugural 2021 Menard Family Lecture on Drug Policy and Criminal Justice" on Thursday, October 7 from 12:30-2pm EDT.  Here is the summary description of a discussion that I will have the honor of moderating:

The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center is pleased to invite you to the Inaugural 2021 Menard Family Lecture on Drug Policy and Criminal Justice featuring Eric H. Holder, Jr., former Attorney General of the United States, and Piper Kerman, social justice advocate and author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” with special guests Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley for the Southern District of Ohio.

In addition, an exciting new addition to the event schedule is a screening and discussion of the film Commuted involving the film's director, Nialah Jefferson, and its main protagonist, Danielle Metz.  One can register for this event, taking place Thursday, October 7 at 5pm EDT.  Here is a description of the film from its website:

In 1993, Danielle Metz was a twenty-six year old mother with two small children, who was labeled a drug kingpin by the US Government as a part of her husband’s drug ring.  She was sentenced to triple life plus twenty years for nonviolent drug offenses, and sent more than two thousand miles from her family in New Orleans to serve our the remainder of her life in California at the Dublin Federal Correctional Institute.  After serving twenty-three years in prison, Danielle’s sentence was commuted in 2016 by the Obama Administration as a part of the Clemency Initiative to address historically unfair sentencing practices during the “war on drugs.”  Now back home, Danielle is trying to start life over again in her fifties while working to help other women avoid her fate.  But perhaps Danielle’s toughest challenge of all is living the dream that kept her going while in prison — that of being a united family again with her two children.

October 4, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 03, 2021

More great Inquest materials, including critical overview of federal drug control history

I hope readers are not tired of all my blogging about Inquest, "a decarceral brainstorm," because the site continues to publish must-read essays and other great materials that remain so very blogworthy.  Since my last posting, the site has posted these great new reads:

From Sharlyn Grace, "‘Organizers Change What’s Possible’: Before bold, decarceral changes can become a reality, community organizers tirelessly move the policy needle in other ways. Here’s how they did it in Illinois."  

"‘We Are Men’: On the 50th anniversary of a flashpoint of the American penal system, the cries of Attica still resonate today."

From Patricia Richman & Diane Goldstein, "Follow the Science: Federal law enforcement has long called the shots in the field of drug scheduling. But in the case of fentanyl analogues, Congress has a chance to lead — by doing nothing."

The last of these pieces provides an especially effective account of the federal government's "50-year campaign to tilt the balance in drug-control decision making away from science and towards enforcement, criminalization, and incarceration."  Here is a taste (with links from the original):

Since the dawn of modern drug policy, the United States has pretended to hew to a dual approach to illicit drugs, one that emphasizes law enforcement and public health in roughly equal measure.  That duality is a farce: Federal funding for enforcement has historically dwarfed public health and other demand-reduction strategies, and 50 years of the same approach to drug policy have shown that the whole enterprise has been a spectacular failure.

To this day, headlines still abound with reported large-scale drug seizures and ever-present arrests, but none of this has reduced the demand that drives the supply.  The overdose crisis, which has run parallel to the war on drugs for decades, is “the clearest indictment so far of the failure of prohibition to curb drug use,” as experts in drug policy recently put it. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans continue to struggle with substance-use disorder and its consequences.  And enforcement policies have come at an unfathomable cost, sending far too many young men of color to crowd our prisons, leaving broken families and communities in their wake.

October 3, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 01, 2021

After an overwhelming majority of GOP House delegation voted for EQUAL Act, can the Senate move quickly to finally right a 35-year wrong?

I was very excited when earlier this week the US House voted 361-66 to pass the EQUAL Act to end the statutory disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences.  I was also pleased to see this follow-up press release from my GOP senator headlined "Portman, Senate Co-Sponsors Laud House Passage of EQUAL Act."  Here is the text:

U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the bipartisan Senate sponsors of the EQUAL Act, issued the below statement following the passage of the EQUAL Act in the House of Representatives by a bipartisan vote of 361-66.

“Today, House Republicans and Democrats joined together in passing the EQUAL Act, legislation that will once and for all eliminate the unjust federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.  Enjoying broad support from faith groups, civil rights organizations, law enforcement, and people of all political backgrounds, this commonsense bill will help reform our criminal justice system so that it better lives up to the ideals of true justice and equality under the law.  We applaud the House for its vote today and we urge our colleagues in the Senate to support this historic legislation.”

Ohio eliminated the crack-powder sentencing disparities back in 2011.

Along with bipartisan support in Congress, this landmark legislation has support from groups across the political spectrum, including the National District Attorneys Association, Americans for Tax Reform, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Prison Fellowship, Due Process Institute, Americans for Prosperity, FAMM, Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, Digital Liberty, Faith and Freedom Coalition, ALEC Action, R Street Institute, National Association for Public Defense, American Civil Liberties Union, Sentencing Project, Fair Trials, FreedomWorks, Center for American Progress, Drug Policy Alliance, Jesuit Conference, Black Public Defender Association, Dream Corps JUSTICE, Federal Public and Community Defenders, Innocence Project, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, and Tzedek Association.

So three notable GOP Senators from pretty red states are co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act in the Senate, and a wide array of right-leaning advocacy groups are also eager to see this pass.  And, to highlight again the House vote specifics, roughly twice as many GOP reps voted for the EQUAL Act as voted against it.  If this same breakdown happened on the Senate side, there would be over 80  total votes for passage of the EQUAL Act in the Senate.  Even if only half of GOP Senators support the EQUAL Act, that makes 75 votes in the Senate.  And, of course, only 10 GOP votes would be needed to end any filibuster, which I presume Senator Cotton would launch to gum up the works, to permit a floor vote.

So, if ever there was a federal criminal justice reform bill that should be a relatively easy lift, I would hope this is it.  And yet, I have not seen any advocates talk as if Senate action is imminent or even all that likely.  As I mentioned to a Vice News reporter who wrote here about the House vote, an average of more than four persons are sentenced in federal court for crack offenses every single week day, and many tends of thousands of (disproportionately black) offenders have been sentenced unfairly now for a full 35 years since the crack/powder disparity first became law way back in 1986.  There is no need or value to waiting to finally make all federal cocaine offenses subject to the same sentencing rules, and so I hope the Senate might move swiftly.  But, as is always the case it seems when in comes to Congress, I do not think there is reason to be optimistic.  Sigh.

(Oh, and more more point while I am bemoaning Beltway activities (or lack thereof): even if the EQUAL Act were to move forward quickly in the Senate, I do not think it currently provides emergency authority for the US Sentencing Commission to change the crack guidelines AND the US Sentencing Commission is currently inert until Prez Biden nominates a slate of Commissioners and those folks garner Senate confirmation.  Fortunately, because the guidelines are advisory, district judges could ignore the disparate crack guidelines even while still in place after passage of the EQUAL Act.  But then again, those disparate guidelines can and should be ignored now, and yet they are still followed in many cases and still create a benchmark that shapes and distorts the sentencing process.)

October 1, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, September 30, 2021

SCOTUS starts new term with four new cert grants, one involving the sentencing process for retroactive crack case resentencing

I was pleased to see that the Justices decided to give us a taste of the start of the new SCOTUS Term by issuing this morning this one-page order list that includes the granting of certiorari in four new cases (all of which are likely to be heard in early 2022).  And I am even more excited to see that there was a federal sentencing case on the certiorari granted list, "20-1650 CONCEPCION, CARLOS V. UNITED STATES."  Here is the SCOTUSblog collection of docket entries in this case, and it is interesting to see that (unlike most cases that get granted) the Justices did not need a relisting to decide it should take up this matter.  And here is a link to the cert petition from Mr. Concepcion that sets forth this question presented:

Whether, when deciding if it should “impose a reduced sentence” on an individual under Section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018, 21 U.S.C. § 841 note, a district court must or may consider intervening legal and factual developments.

Notably, back in February of this year, this post titled "Reviewing the still uncertain state, and the still certain need, for effective federal crack retroactivity resentencing" reviewed some of the persistent legal questions arising in the thousands of retroactive crack case resentencings that Section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018.  I am pleased to see SCOTUS take up some of these issues in Concepcion, and I hope the Justices will be able to some more clarity to retroactive resentencing procedures.

Earlier this week, I flagged in this post a number of other sentencing issues swimming around in the cert pool that are worth watching in the weeks and months ahead.  I assume we will get a much, much, much longer order list on Monday morning where we will likely see cert denied on some of these issues but also possible relisting of others.  So, SCOTUS sentencing fans, stay tuned as engines are just getting started for the new Oct21 Term.

September 30, 2021 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 (6)