Thursday, January 26, 2023

New year and new Congress brings a new effort to advance new EQUAL Act

Regular readers likely recall some of my posts over the last two years about the EQUAL Act, a bill to reform federal crack cocaine sentencing by finally treating crack and powder cocaine the same at sentencing.  In short form, passage of the bill looked somewhat likely when the US House of Representatives passed it overwhelmingly in September 2021; but, as detailed in posts here and here from the first half of 2022, opposition from some key Republican Senators prevented the bill from getting to the desk of President Biden.  And, as detailed in this post, a lame-duck session compromise bill to the finish line.

Of course, the start of 2023 means a new Congress, so there needs to be a new version of the EQUAL Act introduced.  Interestingly, as this new FAMM press release highlights, there is already a "coalition of law enforcement, justice reform, and civil rights organizations urg[ing] Congress to pass the EQUAL Act" even before a new version has been formally introduced.  As the press release explains: "Today, FAMM along with 20 additional organizations sent a letter to Sens. Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham (the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively) urging them to schedule a markup for the EQUAL Act as soon as it is reintroduced this Congress."  Here are parts of the letter:

We write today to urge you to schedule a mark-up for the EQUAL Act as soon as it is reintroduced. We believe that moving the bill early this year will help prevent the same disappointing fate the bill suffered last Congress....

Last Congress, the EQUAL Act was one of only a few pieces of legislation to enjoy clear bipartisan support. The House of Representatives passed the bill in September 2021 with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 361-66. The Senate version of the bill enjoyed the support of more than 60 senators, but never received a vote in committee or on the floor. To ensure this strong bipartisan bill reaches President Biden’s desk, we urge you and your committee to begin work on this urgent piece of legislation immediately.

Notably, but not surprisingly, this letter to Congress makes no mention of the fact that, as discussed here, US Attorney General Garland released last month new federal charging guidelines that including instructions to federal prosecutors to treat crack like powder cocaine at sentencing.  Though these new charging guidelines do not have the legal force of statutory reform, they might readily lead members of Congress to see less urgency in advancing reform or even to be more resistance to reform as we saw late last year.  Fingers crossed that EQUAL can gather momentum again and actually finally eliminate the pernicious and unjustified crack/powder disparity once and for all.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

January 26, 2023 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 13, 2023

Outgoing Pennsylvania Gov included high-profile artist in final batch of record-setting clemency grants

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has only a few more days in office, and he is closing out a tenure that has been record setting in the use of clemency authority.  This local article discusses that record as well as the high-profile clemency recipent in the last batch of grants:

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has pardoned Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill of his possession of drugs and weapons charges from 2008....

Wolf has issued more than twice the amount of pardons granted by any of his predecessors, with at least a quarter of them targeting non-violent marijuana offenses, his administration announced Thursday.

Wolf, a Democrat, signed his final 369 pardons this week, for a total of 2,540 since he took office in 2015. He surpassed Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's record of 1,122 granted pardons. Of the pardons, 395 were part of the expedited review process for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses. Another 232 were part of the PA Marijuana Pardon Project, which accepted applications through the month of September.

"I have taken this process very seriously - reviewing and giving careful thought to each and every one of these 2,540 pardons and the lives they will impact," Wolf said in a statement. "Every single one of the Pennsylvanians who made it through the process truly deserves their second chance, and it's been my honor to grant it."

A pardon grants total forgiveness of the related criminal conviction and allows for expungement.

January 13, 2023 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

US Sentencing Commission releases "Weighing the Impact of Simple Possession of Marijuana: Trends and Sentencing in the Federal System"

Cover_mj-possession-2023This morning, the US Sentencing Commission has released this interesting new report titled "Weighing the Impact of Simple Possession of Marijuana: Trends and Sentencing in the Federal System."  This USSC webpage provides this summary and key findings:

The report entitled Weighing the Impact of Simple Possession of Marijuana: Trends and Sentencing in the Federal System updates a 2016 Commission study and examines sentences for simple possession of marijuana offenses in two respects.  Part One of the report assesses trends in federal sentencings for simple possession of marijuana since fiscal year 2014.  The report then describes the demographic characteristics, criminal history, and sentencing outcomes of federal offenders sentenced for marijuana possession in the last five fiscal years and compares them to federal offenders sentenced for possession of other drug types.

Part Two of the report examines how prior sentences for simple possession of marijuana (under both federal and state law) affect criminal history calculations under the federal sentencing guidelines for new federal offenses.  The report identifies how many federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2021 — for any crime type — received criminal history points under Chapter Four of the Guidelines Manual for prior marijuana possession sentences.  The report then assesses the impact of such points on those offenders’ criminal history category, one of the two components used to establish the sentencing guideline range.

Key Findings

Federal Sentencings for Simple Possession of Marijuana

  • The number of federal offenders sentenced for simple possession of marijuana is relatively small and has been declining steadily from 2,172 in fiscal year 2014 to only 145 in fiscal year 2021.
  • The overall trends were largely driven by one district, the District of Arizona, which accounted for nearly 80 percent (78.9%) of all federal marijuana possession sentencings since 2014.  As the number of such cases in the District of Arizona declined from a peak of 1,916 in 2014 to just two in fiscal year 2021, the overall federal caseload followed a similar pattern.
  • Federal offenders sentenced for marijuana possession in the last five fiscal years tended to be male (85.5%), Hispanic (70.8%), and non-U.S. citizens (59.8%).  A little over two-thirds (70.1%) were sentenced to prison; the average prison sentence imposed was five months.
  • As of January 2022, no offenders sentenced solely for simple possession of marijuana remained in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Impact of Prior Sentences for Simple Possession of Marijuana

  • In fiscal year 2021, 4,405 federal offenders (8.0%) received criminal history points under the federal sentencing guidelines for prior marijuana possession sentences.  Most of the prior sentences (79.3%) were for less than 60 days in prison, including non-custodial sentences.  Furthermore, ten percent (10.2%) of these 4,405 offenders had no other criminal history points.
  • The criminal history points assigned under the federal sentencing guidelines for prior marijuana possession sentences resulted in a higher criminal history category for 1,765 of the 4,405 offenders (40.1%).
  • Of the 1,765 offenders whose criminal history category was impacted by a prior marijuana possession sentence, most were male (94.2%), U.S. citizens (80.0%), and either Black (41.7%) or Hispanic (40.1%).
  • Nearly all (97.0%) of the prior marijuana possession sentences were for state convictions, some of which were from states that have changed their laws to decriminalize (22.2%) or legalize (18.2%) marijuana possession, states that allow for expungement or sealing of marijuana possession records (19.7%), or some combination thereof.  Prior sentences for marijuana possession from these states resulted in higher criminal history calculations under the federal sentencing guidelines for 695 offenders.

January 10, 2023 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (33)

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Notable ruling on meth sentencing guidelines by a notable federal sentencing judge

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss a notable little new ruling from federal judge in Mississippi in US v. Robinson, No. 3:21-CR-14-CWR-FKB-2 (S.D. Miss. Dec. 23, 2022) (available here).  The ruling addresses the calculation of the federal sentencing guideline range in meth cases, and here are some excerpts (with lots of cites omitted):

The issue is fairly straightforward. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines use drug purity as a proxy for a defendant’s culpability....  As a result, the Guidelines make a distinction between “methamphetamine” and “actual methamphetamine.”   All else equal, defendants caught with actual methamphetamine get longer sentences than defendants caught with methamphetamine mixture....

The distinction is significant to Mr. Robinson.  Because he possessed 214.4 grams of especially pure methamphetamine, the Guidelines indicate that he should have a “base offense level” of 32.  In contrast, if Mr. Robinson was deemed to have possessed 214.4 grams of methamphetamine mixture, the Guidelines indicate that his base offense level would be 26....

At the outset, the Court appreciates the parties for pointing to Judge Bennett’s decision in United States v. Nawanna, 321 F. Supp. 3d 943 (N.D. Iowa 2018).  In that case, the United States conceded that there is no empirical basis for the Sentencing Commission’s 10-to-1 weight disparity between actual methamphetamine and methamphetamine mixture. Other courts have found the same....

On review, the undersigned agrees with these colleagues.  The Guidelines use drug purity as a proxy for culpability.  But national experience suggests that is no longer true for methamphetamine.  The DEA data show that most methamphetamine confiscated today is “pure” regardless of whether the defendant is a kingpin or a low-level addict....

Given the on-the-ground reality in methamphetamine cases, the better way to determine culpability is to examine all of the circumstances of the defendant’s case and life -- seeing the defendant as a “whole person,” as the Supreme Court just instructed in Concepcion. 142 S. Ct. at 2395.  There are sentencing enhancements available for leaders, organizers, or managers of criminal enterprises.  If the defendant’s case warrants, those enhancements should be applied.  In the context of methamphetamine, though, purity is no longer probative of the defendant’s culpability.

This ruling is notable on its own terms, but it seemed especially blogworthy because of the opinion's author: US District Judge Carlton W. Reeves. Judge Reeves, as some readers likely know, is the new Chair of the US Sentencing Commission.

December 28, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Lots of new data and a notable date from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission yesterday published two new data reports: (1) this updated compassionate release data report and (2) this FY 2022 fourth quarter sentencing data.  There are lots of stories within all these data, though I still see the top stories to be those discussed here before: there are dramatic district variations in compassionate release grant rates and there are still relatively few "within guideline" sentences" being imposed by judges.

Specifically, on compassionate release, the three districts of Georgia show one notable example of variation: the Southern District of Georgia has granted only 8 out of 296 sentence reduction motions for a 2.7% grant rate; the Middle District of Georgia has granted only 4 out of 265 sentence reduction motions for a 1.5% grant rate; but the Northern District of Georgia has granted 80 out of 174 sentence reduction motions for a 46% grant rate.  On original sentencing more generally, this most recent USSC data show that, for all of FY 22, only 42% of all federal sentences have been imposed "Within Guideline Range" (and the number is under 28% for "Drug Trafficking" cases).

For various reasons and in various ways, all these data in some sense reflect the consequences of the US Sentencing Commission having to function without a quorum and being unable to amend any guidelines for nearly five years.  But, of course, we now have a fully loaded Commission, and the Commissions are clearly hard at work on guidelines reforms.  We know that because the Commission has now officially announced that it will have a public meeting on January 12, 2023, and that announcement notes the meeting agenda is to include "Possible Vote to Publish Proposed Guideline Amendments and Issues for Comment."

December 21, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 19, 2022

Looking back and looking forward on federal crack sentencing after new AG Garland memos

As noted in this post, US Attorney General Merrick Garland issued new federal charging guidelines this past Friday.  There are lots of thinkgs to say about a lot of the particulars of these guidelines (including why they took so long to be produced), although the bulk of the media coverage has been about the AG Garland's specific instructions to federal prosecutors to "promote the equivalent treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses."   That intruction alone justifies lots of discussion, but I will start with one "looking back" matter and one "looking forward" matter:

1.  Shouldn't past crack sentences merit "equivalent treatment" via compassionate release?   This US Sentencing Commission data analysis from January 2022 suggests that there may be 8,000 or more current federal prisonsers serving crack sentences that are much longer than they would have received if they had receicved "equivalent treatment" to powder offenders at their initial sentencing.  Though it may be claimed that not all current crack prisoners may be able to demonstrate "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A), certainly some of them are likely to be able to do so.  Presumably, federal prosecutors can and will now be fully supportive of efforts by crack prisoners to seek such reductions to at least the powder sentencing equivalent whenever there are any other bases to claim that "extraordinary and compelling reasons" support a sentence reduction.  Moreover, as I see it, the historic problems and injustices of crack sentencing is alone an "extraordinary and compelling reasons" support a sentence reduction.  I doubt federal prosecutors will agree with this assertion, but federal courts could certainly make such a finding and I would hope DOJ would not appeal such a finding if some district courts so rule.

2.  Isn't future congressional crack sentencing reform tougher now?  Literally hours before seeing the new AG charging guidelines, I blogged news reports that Congress was closing in on a deal to lower crack sentences so as to reduce (but not elimited) the statutory crack/powder disparity.  Thoughthe AG issuing discretionary charging guidelines ought not directly impact how legislators think about statutory reform, everything that happens inside the Beltway can echo through all the work other others inside the Beltway.  And, discouragingly, I have now seen this new report, headlined "U.S. Senate Talks on Cocaine Sentencing Reform Hit Roadblock," suggesting crack sentencing reform is not likely to get done:

Negotiations in the U.S. Senate to narrow sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine have stalled, two sources said on Monday, in what could prove a blow for criminal justice reform advocates....  [I]n the last three days, negotiations to tuck the measure into the year-end spending bill, considered key for its passage, have largely ground to a halt, the sources said.

A Friday decision by Attorney General Merrick Garland to instruct federal prosecutors to end disparities in the way they charge offenses involving crack and powder upset some Republican legislators, who accused the Justice Department of usurping congressional authority.  Separately, bipartisan negotiators have encountered unexpected opposition from top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, one of the people said.

"A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including myself, just recently came to an agreement on statutory changes that could possibly be included in the year-end funding bill," Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee, said in a Friday statement.  "That hard-won compromise has been jeopardized because the attorney general inappropriately took lawmaking into his own hands."

Perhaps AG Garland already knew that Senator McConnell was going to block crack sentencing reform before issuing his bold charging guidelines. But, if there was still a realistic chance at crack sentencing reform that AG Garland disrupted simply by not waiting a few more days to issue these (long-overdue) guidelines, then this was an epic blunder in timing.

UPDATE This new Politico article about the omnibus bill to be passsed by Congress indicates that crack sentencing reform is not included AND that AG Garland's charging memo is the reasona why:

A bipartisan deal to narrow the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine was also booted from the bill after Attorney General Merrick Garland instructed federal prosecutors last week to eliminate the sentencing disparities, sparking frustration from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who accused him of blowing up the Senate deal.

December 19, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, December 16, 2022

US Attorney General Garland releases new federal charging guidelines that include instructions to treat crack like powder cocaine

I thought the increasing prospects for statutory sentencing reforms from Congress might be the big federal sentencing news of this week, but this new Washington Post piece suggests that even bigger news is coming from the Department of Justice.   Here are the (incomplete) details from the first press piece:

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday instructed federal prosecutors to end sentencing disparities in cases involving the distribution of crack and powder cocaine after decades of law enforcement policy disproportionately treating crack offenders more punitively.  Garland’s move effectively seeks to eliminate the significant difference in the amount of powder cocaine relative to crack cocaine that is required to be in a suspect’s possession to trigger mandatory minimum federal sentences if convicted.

Critics of the longtime policy have said it is a relic of the Washington’s misguided war-on-drugs era that targeted Black and Brown communities, resulted in overpopulated prisons and strained federal and local resources at the expense of more effective strategies. Proponents of treating crack dealers more punitively have said that form of the drug is faster acting and capable of producing more intense highs. Under current federal policy, possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine would trigger a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years, compared to 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Garland’s memo to the nation’s U.S. attorneys directs prosecutors to charge “pertinent statutory quantities that apply to powder cocaine” when pursuing crack cases and to “advocate for a sentence consistent with powder cocaine rather than crack cocaine.” The move, long sought by civil rights advocates, comes as the Equal Act, a legislative bill that would eliminate the disparity, has been stalled in the Senate amid objections from some Republicans after passing the House last year with bipartisan support.

Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator from Delaware, crafted the 1986 crime bill that initially set a 100-to-1 ratio between powder and crack cocaine to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. The Fair Sentencing Act 0f 2010 reduced the ratio to 18-to-1. The Biden administration endorsed the Equal Act last year....

Garland’s memo cited Justice Department testimony last year to the Senate Judiciary Committee that such a disparity “is simply not supported by science, as there are no significant pharmacological differences between the drugs: they are two forms of the same drug, with powder readily convertible into crack cocaine.”

During his confirmation hearing in February 2021, Garland told Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a co-sponsor of the Equal Act, that the inequitable sentencing in crack and powder cocaine cases had a “disparate impact on communities of color.” “There’s no justification for this, and we should end this,” Garland said at the time. He also said that powder cocaine “is as dangerous with respect to crime rates as crack cocaine, both of which have now been unfortunately overtaken by fentanyl and the opioids. But both of those are bad problems [and] equalizing penalties for crack and powder should have no difference with respect to our ability to fight violent crime.”

Garland aides said the new guidelines, which will take effect within 30 days, are part of a broader set of changes the attorney general is making to the Justice Department’s charging policies.  The department under Garland continues to support the passage of the Equal Act, aides said; unlike a legislative change to federal policy, they noted, Garland’s memo would not retroactively apply to previous convictions.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said in an interview that he supported Garland’s directive. Though the group has opposed eliminating the sentencing disparity in the past, and it did not take a position on the Equal Act, Pasco said the police union’s views have evolved “as there’s been more clarity around the science.” Pasco said the Biden administration has supported police with additional resources to fight a rise in violent crime, and the union does not believe the policy changes on cocaine sentencing will adversely affect the efforts of law enforcement.

Garland’s action could face blowback from Republicans who have championed a bill that would reduce the sentencing disparity but not eliminate it entirely. In April, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), Mike Lee (Utah), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) proposed legislation that would reduce the ratio of powder-to-crack cocaine that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences to 2.5-to-1. Unlike the Equal Act, however, that bill would achieve greater parity in part by increasing penalties for powder cocaine users.

Aggravatingly, as of 2pm EST, the new AG Garland crack charging memo is not available on the Justice Department's website.  I am very eager to see thsi memo, as well as whatever else appears in the "broader set of changes the attorney general is making to the Justice Department’s charging policies" before commenting at length.  But I will start by noting that federal law does provide at least one possible means for Garland’s memo to retroactively apply to some previous crack convictions: AG Garland could have prosecutors bring, and vocally and consistently support, motions for sentence reductions under 3582(c)(1)(A) for crack offenders who are still serving unduly long and unfair crack sentences based in the unjust disparity.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader made sure to get me copies of these new charging memos from AG Garland.  Here they are (with commentary to follow in coming days):

Download Attorney General Memorandum - General Department Policies Regarding Charging Pleas and Sentencing

Download Attorney General Memorandum - Additional Department Policies Regarding Charges Pleas and Sentencing in Drug Cases

December 16, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

New crack sentence reductions (but not equalization or retroactivity) reportedly in Congress's year-end lawmaking

I think I am excited — though I might also be more than a bit disappointed — to see reports from a few press sources that Congress may be getting close to passing a version of crack sentencing reform, though apparently not one that will fully equalize powder and crack sentencing terms or that will make new reforms retroactive.  This Reuters piece, healdined "U.S. Senate set to address cocaine sentencing disparity in funding bill," provides these details:

Negotiators in the U.S. Senate have reached a tentative deal to narrow sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine and plan to tuck the measure into a bill funding the government, according to four people briefed on the matter....

Under a deal reached by bipartisan negotiators, that [crack/powder weight disparity] would be narrowed to 2.5 to 1, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss private talks. Congress is likely to attach the measure to a year-end spending bill that lawmakers are currently hashing out, they added.

Legislation that would completely eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder passed in the House of Representatives by a wide margin last year, though it has not advanced in the Senate.

Several Senate Republicans, including Chuck Grassley, the party's highest-ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, have publicly supported a 2.5-to-1 proportion instead. Grassley's office did not respond to a request for comment. Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a key actor in cocaine sentencing talks, declined to comment.

The tentative deal does not include retroactive relief for people already convicted of crack-related offenses, which sentencing reform groups had been pushing for, the people said.

The disparities between crack and powder date back to war-on-drugs policies of the 1980s. In 1986, Congress passed a law to establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses, which treated crack and powder cocaine offenses using a 100-to-1 ratio. Under that formula, a person convicted for selling 5 grams of crack cocaine was treated the same as someone who sold 500 grams of powder cocaine. That proportion was narrowed to 18 to 1 in 2010.

While the people involved in negotiations see the passage of the cocaine sentencing compromise as likely, they warned the deal could still fall apart as Congress races to pass the sweeping, expected $1.7 trillion government funding measure.

I always welcome "half-a-loaf" criminal justice reforms and better than getting nothing done at all.  And I had come to think this Congress was going to get nothing done at all on this front.  So, I am keen to be excited about something seemingly on a path to enactment.

But Senator Grassley's original proposal for a 2.5-1 cocaine sentencing ratio, as detailed here, called for essentially increasing punishment levels for powder cocaine along with loweing punishments for crack cocaine.  Given that US Sentencing Commission data show that there are now nearly three times as many powder cases sentenced in federal courts as crack cases, it is possible that efforts to reduce disparities here (depanding on the particulars) could actually raise sentences overall.  My guess is that any deal being stuck is likely to have a net reduction in expected prison time, but the devil will be in the statutory details.  In addition, how the new US Sentencing Commission responds to any statutory reforms will be most consequential in the long run.

December 16, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

En banc Eleventh Circuit now gives broad reading to FIRST-STEP-amended mandatory-minimum safety valve provision

Last year in posts here and here, I spotlighted a significant Ninth Circuit ruling in US v. Lopez, No. 19-50305 (9th Cir. May 21, 2021) (available here), which interpreted the FIRST-STEP-amended statutory safety valve to enable more federal drug defendants to benefit from its authorization for below mandatory-minimum sentences.  But, as I noted in this post, days earlier in US v. Garcon, No. 19-14650 (11th Cir. May 18, 2021) (available here), an Eleventh Circuit panel reach an opposite interpretation of this statutory language.  The Garcon ruling went en banc, and today resulted in this set of opinions running 85 pages with an array of opinions from a court split 7-5.  Writing for six judges, Chief Judge (and former USSC Acting Chair) Bill Pryor start the opinion for the Eleventh Circuit this way:

The question presented in this appeal of a grant of safety-valve relief is whether, in the First Step Act, the word “and” means “and.” The Act empowers a court to grant a criminal defendant relief from a mandatory minimum sentence, but that relief is available only if “the defendant does not have” “more than 4 criminal history points,” “a prior 3-point offense[,] . . . and . . . a prior 2-point violent offense.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(1) (emphasis added). Julian Garcon, who pleaded guilty to attempting to possess 500 grams or more of cocaine with intent to distribute, has a prior 3-point offense but does not have more than 4 criminal history points or a prior 2-point violent offense. The district court concluded that Garcon remained eligible for relief under the Act because he did not have all three characteristics. We agree. Because the conjunctive “and” joins together the enumerated characteristics, a defendant must have all three before he is ineligible for relief.  We affirm.

December 6, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Discouraging report on a possible last gasp for this Congress to pass the EQUAL Act

I have not blogged much lately about the EQUAL Act to reform federal crack cocaine sentencing because, as detailed in posts here and here from the first half of 2022, it seems some key Republican Senators oppose its passage and some key Democratic Senators seem unwilling to try to navigate the politics needed to get the bill to the desk of President Biden.  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 soon be coming to an end.  But, 15 months later, as detailed in this new Politico piece, it sounds like the EQUAL Act has no chance of making it through the Senate and even a bill to just further reduce the crack/powder disparity seems uncertain and underwhelming:

With only a few weeks left in the session, add a final push for reducing the federal sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses to a long end-of-the-year to-do list.  It’s not proving easy.  Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is playing a leading role in the talks, declined to discuss the details Monday night, only saying “we’re in a tough negotiation moment right now.”  He added: “I just want to make sure that I focus on doing what I can to get something over the line, as opposed to talking about strategy.”

There was some discussion about attaching a potential agreement onto the National Defense Authorization Act, but a GOP aide told Huddle that’s no longer expected, leaving a broader end-of-the-year spending deal as the last option.

While criminal justice reform advocates want to see that federal sentencing disparity completely eliminated, citing legislation that passed the House last year by an overwhelming margin, the current talks surround reducing the ratio from the current 18:1 to 2.5:1.  But there are some key sticking points, especially over language from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about the role of the Justice Department when it comes to applying the change retroactively. After Democrats rejected Grassley’s proposal, negotiators are now discussing removing retroactivity altogether, according to a Democratic aide.

Sigh. Notably, this January 2022 US Sentencing Commission impact assessment estimated that retroactive application of the EQUAL Act would save about 50,000 years of imprisonment for the more than 7500+ persons incarcerated for crack offenses, but "only" a little over 2,000 prison years for each year going forward.  Of course, any potential statutory reform that does not lower crack sentencing all the way down to be equal with powder cocaine sentencing will have a more modest impact, and eliminating retroactivity would diminish the impact even more.

Given that the House so overwhelming passed the EQUAL Act last year, I want to believe there is a chance for some kind of reforms in the next Congress even with the GOP in control of the House.  But that might be crazy talk, so maybe this lame duck period is the last best chance for crack sentencing reform.  But at this late date, I am certainly not optimistic.  

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

December 6, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 02, 2022

Sobering numbers from "mass" marijuana pardon efforts in Pennsylvania

In this post over at my marijuana blog a few months ago, I flagged the announcement of outgoing Pennsylvania Gov Tom Wolf to create a large-scale project, called the Pennsylvania Marijuana Pardon Project, to enable people with certain low-level convictions to submit an application online for an official pardon from the state.  Subsequent reports about this effort noted that many thousands of people had submitted pardon applications.  But this new local article, headlined "Thousands applied, but fewer than 250 qualified for Wolf’s marijuana pardon," spotlights how the devil is often in the details in this arena:

When announcing the marijuana pardon project earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf said it had the potential to help thousands of Pennsylvanians clear their records. But it has fallen well short of that goal. More than 3,500 people applied for the program, aimed at wiping out low-level marijuana convictions in a one-time mass act of clemency. Fewer than 250, however, will have an opportunity to clear their record later this month.

On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons voted whether to move forward on more than 2,600 applications from the project. Of those, 231 were approved and will go for a final vote by the board on December 16. Any of the cases that make it through that round, will go on to Wolf to grant the pardon. Another 2,002 applications were denied Thursday because they did not meet the requirements of the project and 434 were held under advisement, meaning the board can vote on them at a later date.

The program only applied to people who were convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana and excluded anyone who had any additional criminal convictions on their record. Advocates said the narrowness of the program was a significant concern for how effective the program could be.

“Often cannabis consumers get multiple convictions when they are arrested that first time,” said Chris Goldstein, NORML’s Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware regional organizer. “They get a paraphernalia charge, and they get a possession charge all at once. You would have to essentially lead a police-free life other than that one marijuana encounter to qualify.”

Goldstein said the fact that program had a very short window for people to apply also likely limited its impact. Wolf announced the program on September 1 and people had until September 30 to apply....

Goldstein said more than 13,000 people were arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana in 2021. About 10 percent of those people wind up with a conviction for the offense. Most others are either dismissed or plead out to a lower level crime.

More than 1,150 people were sentenced in 2018 with possession of a small amount of marijuana as the highest charge in their case, according to the latest year of data available from the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission.

While Goldstein said he was disappointed that only a fraction of the people affected will receive a pardon through the program, clemency for those people will mean less barriers to housing, employment and hopefully improve their lives. “I’m sure to the 231 people who went through this process, got approved, do qualify, when they get the pardon certificate in their hands, it will matter in their lives,” he said. “They had a reason they wanted this pardon. Whether they wanted it for their own person justice, to clear their own name, or they needed it as answer to their record, those pardons will matter.”

December 2, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It is Time to Reform Federal Supervised Release"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new commentary at the ACS Expert Forum authored by Aliza Hochman and Jacob Schuman. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts (with links from the original):

This fall, eight U.S. Senators (three Democrats and five Republicans) introduced the Safer Supervision Act of 2022, which aims to make federal supervised release more efficient, more effective, and less punitive.  As law professors who study criminal punishment and previously served in federal public defender offices, we urge Congress to pass this important legislation.

“Supervised release” is the federal equivalent of parole.  Judges impose supervised release on convicted defendants at sentencing, to follow their term of imprisonment.  If a defendant violates a condition of supervised release, then the judge can “revoke” their supervision and send them back to prison for up to five years.  Officially, the purpose of supervised release is to “afford adequate deterrence,” “protect the public,” and to “provide … correctional treatment,” not to inflict punishment.  The supervision is meant to “fulfill[] rehabilitative ends, distinct from those served by incarceration.”

In reality, however, the federal supervised release system has become bloated and excessively punitive.  Over 100,000 people are currently serving terms of supervised release, which is more than five times the number in the 1970s....  In approximately one-third of cases, the government ultimately revokes the defendant’s supervised releasesending more than 15,000 people to prison annually. Supervised release has also become a “central front in the War on Drugs.”  Drug offenders make up the largest proportion under federal supervision, and judges impose drug-treatment conditions on more than half of all supervisees, with as many as 3,000 revocations every year for drug-use.

Working at federal public defender offices, we witnessed the excesses of this system firsthand. We routinely saw clients sentenced to five, ten, or even twenty years of supervised release, based on just a few words of explanation from the judge, condemning them to spend vast spans of their lives subject to carceral control with hardly any discussion or consideration.  We also defended multiple clients suffering from substance-use disorder who were sent to prison solely for violating their supervised release by relapsing during drug treatment.  These experiences made clear to us that the federal supervision system is in dire need of reform.

The Safer Supervision Act would make three important changes to federal supervised release.  First, the Act would require sentencing judges to conduct an “individualized assessment” of how much supervised release is appropriate when they sentence a defendant....  Second, the Act would create a presumption of early termination of supervised release for individuals who have completed half of their term of supervision, so long as they demonstrate “good conduct and compliance” and do not jeopardize public safety....  Finally, the Act would amend a widely condemned provision of federal law that requires judges to revoke supervised release and impose a prison sentence on supervisees who use drugs, possess drugs, or fail multiple drug tests....

In addition to these three substantive changes, the Act would also direct the Comptroller General to conduct a much-needed study on federal community supervision and reentry, including a public report on the work of the federal Bureau of Prisons and Office of Probation and Pretrial Services....

If enacted, the Safer Supervision Act would be the first legislation in history reducing the size and severity of federal supervised release.  The Act should appeal equally to conservatives wary of government waste and progressives concerned about overcriminalization.  The reforms it proposes are incremental but important and worthy of serious consideration by members of Congress.  We commend this bipartisan political effort to make federal community supervision more effective and more just.

December 2, 2022 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 24, 2022

Prez Biden suggests disinterest in broader marijuana clemency as activists protest on behalf of pot prisoners

This new Marijuana Moment piece, headlined "Biden Has No Intention Of Extending Marijuana Pardons To Help People Jailed For Selling It, He Suggests," reports on new comments from the President about his recent clemency activity.  Here is how it starts:

President Joe Biden on Friday again touted his recent marijuana pardons proclamation, but indicated that he has no intention of granting relief to people who are in prison for selling cannabis.  “I’m keeping my promise that no one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana,” he said. “None. And the records, which hold up people from being able to get jobs and the like, should be totally expunged. Totally expunged.”

“You can’t sell it,” the president added. “But if it’s just use, you’re completely free.”

The comments come as activists are planning a protest including civil disobedience at the White House for Monday aimed at calling attention to those who are left behind by Biden’s existing cannabis clemency action.

It’s not clear if the president’s latest remarks simply describe the scope of his current marijuana pardons, which came alongside a separate move to review the drug’s current scheduling status under federal law, or if they are an indication he is ruling out broadening the scope of clemency relief in the future.

The latter scenario would be a great disappointment to the advocates behind the planned White House protest. Those groups, including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Last Prisoner Project, DCMJ and others, sent a letter to Biden this month, calling his moves to date “a great first step” but saying they “did nothing to address the thousands of federal cannabis prisoners currently incarcerated.”

This extended Washington Post piece, headlined "Sentenced to 40 years, Biden’s marijuana pardons left him behind," discusses the planned protest and the prisoners who are the focal point for additional clemency advocacy:

Protesters are expected to gather outside the White House on Monday to advocate for people ... incarcerated for what they would consider nonviolent offenses that involve marijuana, especially as public perception of the substance has shifted.  Cannabis is now legal for recreational adult use in Washington, D.C., two territories and 19 states.  It is on the ballot in five more states next month.

For those hoping to see marijuana law and policy reforms untangle the legacy of the country’s war on drugs, Biden’s announcement this month that he’d pardon people convicted of federal simple possession did not go far enough. And meaningful post-conviction reform still remains largely elusive in an America that echoed with promises to scrutinize criminal justice following the murder of George Floyd.

The Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit working on cannabis criminal justice reform that lobbied the White House on this issue, has estimated that there are roughly 2,800 people in federal prison due to marijuana-related convictions, a statistic the organization said stems from a 2021 report from Recidiviz, a nonprofit that uses technology and data to build tools for criminal justice reform....

The first step in ending the war on drugs — which has disproportionally affected Black and Brown communities — is releasing people who have been incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses, said Jason Ortiz, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

Offenses like cultivation, distribution and conspiracy, Ortiz said, are the same actions major companies are able to commercialize and profit from today. “There are multibillion dollar companies that sell thousands and thousands of pounds of cannabis a year and operate in multiple states. So if we’re going to allow for that type of commerce to happen, everyone in prison who did anything even remotely close to that should be immediately let out.”

I think it notable and worth noting that we actually have no clear accounting of how many persons may still be serving federal prison terms for "nonviolent marijuana offenses."  This recent analysis of federal prison data from January 2022 by the US Sentencing Commission suggests the number of imprisoned marijuana trafficking offenders was "only" around 2200 as of the start of this year.  Notably, the federal marijuana prisoner number was around 7500 based on USSC data from just five years ago, but sharp declines in federal marijuana prosecutions (discussed in this article) and COVID-era prison population reductions have had a huge impact on the total number now incarcerated for federal marijuana offenses.

Prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: Here is a new Washington Post piece about the protest headlined "With speeches, stars and a blow-up joint, protesters press Biden on pot."

October 24, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

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

Drugs-and-Public-Safety_Call-for-Papers_for-social_new-date_1-1800x1005In this post a few months ago, I highlighted a new call for papers relating to an exciting event I am helping to plan on "Drugs and Public Safety Exploring the Impact of Policy, Policing, and Prosecutorial Reforms."  I am grateful we have already received a number of great proposals, and we have now  extended the closing date for proposals until the end of this month.  Here again is the 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 now due by October 31, 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.

October 18, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Notable comments on drug sentencing policies from rival Senate candidates in Pennsylvania

NBC News has recently run a couple of interesting pieces based on interviews with the Pennsylvania US Senate candidates that probed some sentencing issues. Here are links to the pieces and some of the passages:

"Fetterman says his stroke recovery 'changes everything' but that he’s fit to serve as senator"

He also pushed back on Republicans who accuse him of being soft on crime. Though he used his seat on a state parole board to advocate for the early release of some prisoners — including felons convicted of murder and other violent crimes — Fetterman said paroles were only granted in a small fraction of cases and to convicts who had demonstrated remorse through years of good behavior....

He also praised President Joe Biden’s decision last week to pardon thousands of people convicted only on charges of marijuana possession at the federal level; he said earlier this year that he had pressed Biden to decriminalize pot.

At the same time, Fetterman told NBC News that he favors strengthening federal drug laws to make it easier to apply mandatory minimum sentences to fentanyl dealers, an idea incorporated into GOP legislation on Capitol Hill.

Pennsylvania, like many states, has grappled with the abuse of pain-killers such as fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that can be lethal in small doses. Despite his approval for releasing some violent criminals early, and without committing to signing onto a GOP bill in Congress, Fetterman endorsed the basic aim of the legislation.

“I’d have to see what’s in front of me when it’s there. But the bottom is that being an addict, you know, we haven’t been able to arrest our way out of, you know, to the addict,” he said. “But it’s the, actually the pushers and the dealers, that’s a completely different issue. And they deserve to be in prison.”

"Oz says he supports Biden on marijuana pardons and opposes federal mandatory minimum prison sentences":

Mehmet Oz opposes federal mandatory minimum prison sentences and thinks President Joe Biden made a “rational move” by announcing a broad pardon for certain marijuana users, Oz, the Republican Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, said Thursday in an exclusive interview with NBC News.

The remarks represent a slight tack to the center in the final days of a race in which Oz, who trails in public polling, has repeatedly attacked Democratic rival John Fetterman as being too soft on crime.

Oz said he supports Biden’s decision to clear the records of ex-convicts who were in federal prison solely on charges of simple marijuana possession, a rare area of agreement with Biden and Fetterman.

“Going to jail for marijuana is not a wise move for the country. I think folks who have used marijuana and that’s the only reason they’re in jail should not have those criminal — those rulings — held against them,” Oz said, crediting Biden with a “rational move.”

He also said he broadly opposes federal mandatory minimum prison sentences, just days after Fetterman voiced support for applying them in more cases involving fentanyl dealers in an exclusive interview with NBC News.

“I really think judges should be empowered to make the difficult decisions, and they generally do it well,” Oz said. “When we tie their hands by making laws at the federal level, it hinders their ability to do what needs to be done.”

October 15, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Severe federal drug sentence in a sad, high-profile case with so many stories within

I sometimes say to students (and on this blog) that certain cases could alone provide a robust foundation for teaching about so many different aspects of sentencing theory, policy and practice. Upon reading this Washington Post account of the high-profile federal sentencing of Eric Kay for providing the drugs that led to the death of Tyler Skaggs, I am yet again struck by how many notable issues and stories are sometimes tucked within a single sentencing. Here are some of the details:

Eric Kay, the former communications director for the Los Angeles Angels, was sentenced Tuesday to 22 years in prison after being convicted in February of providing the drugs that caused the 2019 death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs.  District Judge Terry Means said he went above the minimum 20 years Kay faced because of remarks he made in prison.   Prosecutors played a tape of a prison phone conversation in which Kay, whose calls were monitored and recorded, said of Skaggs: “I hope people realize what a piece of s--- he is. … Well, he’s dead, so f--- him.”

Means said he had been dreading sentencing Kay, 48, who was convicted of drug distribution resulting in death, because he felt mandatory minimums were “excessive.”  But the judge said the prison conversations showed a “refusal to accept responsibility and even be remorseful for something you caused.”

In his own remarks, Kay apologized for having “spewed vitriol” about Skaggs, prosecutors and the jury, in that and other prison correspondence. “I wanted to blame Tyler for all of this,” Kay said, calling his words “so wrong and foul.”

The emotional sentencing hearing spelled a bleak end to this phase of a legal saga that began when Skaggs, 27, was found dead in a Southlake, Tex., hotel room July 1, 2019, with oxycodone and fentanyl in his system. Kay has indicated he will appeal his conviction.  Kay, like Skaggs, was a user of illicit opioids.  During Kay’s trial in February, witnesses including several Major League Baseball players said he shared black market pain pills with them, though the government has not suggested he did so for profit.

Federal prosecutor Erinn Martin stated that Kay was in Skaggs’s hotel room when he choked on his own vomit — a contention based on key card evidence — and that he didn’t try to save the pitcher because “he freaked out and decided to save himself and his job” or because he was incapacitated himself. Martin said Tuesday that Kay knew the drugs he gave Skaggs were “likely or potentially counterfeit” and could contain fentanyl.

Kay, who did not take the stand in his own defense during the trial, did not directly address the government’s version of events Tuesday but expressed remorse for his actions, blaming his addiction.  “I will spend the rest of my days in repair,” said Kay, who wore an orange jumpsuit and was in arm and leg shackles, during remarks in which he sometimes sobbed.

Skaggs’s family members said Kay was responsible for the pitcher’s death in their own remarks in court Tuesday. “Eric Kay knew that the drugs he was giving to my son and other players [were] laced with fentanyl,” said Skaggs’s mother, Debbie, adding that “a strict sentence … has the power to dissuade people from providing lethal drugs to others.” ...  “I know no matter how much time Eric Kay gets it won’t bring back Tyler,” Skaggs’s father, Darrell, said in a statement read in court by Tyler’s aunt. “But the longer he is incarcerated, the safer everyone is.”

Kay, who was raised upper-middle class in Southern California and educated at Pepperdine University before rising to earn a six-figure salary with the Angels, had no previous criminal record.  But Martin, the prosecutor, said Kay’s prison correspondence was evidence that he hadn’t learned his lesson.  In emails and phone calls, Kay referred to the “trash-ass Skaggs family,” derided the jurors as “rednecks” with missing teeth and referred to a federal prosecutor’s “horrible makeup.” Martin also noted that Kay was allegedly caught with suboxone while in jail. “That kind of person reoffends,” Martin said. “Eric Kay isn’t going to stop.”

Kay’s attorney, Cody Cofer, said his client’s jailhouse remarks reflected the resentment of a man coming to terms with being separated from his family for two decades. “The notion that he is likely to reoffend is just not supported,” Cofer said.

Means said Kay should be incarcerated near his home of California, where he has three sons, the youngest of whom is 12. Kay’s middle child, 20-year-old Carter, said during the sentencing hearing that his father “wouldn’t do something bad willingly” and urged the judge to be lenient. “My little brother needs him most,” Carter Kay said. “I haven’t seen him smile in a while.”...

Since Kay’s trial, one of his attorneys, Reagan Wynn, has been suspended from practicing law after a Texas bar panel found he “failed to explain” to another client the facts of his criminal case. In a May hearing in Kay’s case, his other attorney at the time, Michael Molfetta, appeared to blame Wynn for having left Kay without representation during a meeting with probation officials before his sentencing....

Molfetta also has since left the case. In an interview with The Washington Post, Sandy Kay said her son had received a poor legal defense. “Tyler Skaggs was an adult male who willfully chose to engage in dangerous behavior that ended in his death,” Sandra Kay said. “And to hold someone else accountable for that is a great injustice.”

October 12, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Reminder on a call for papers for "Drugs and Public Safety: Exploring the Impact of Policy, Policing, and Prosecutorial Reforms"

As first flagged here a couple of months ago, 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.” The deadline for the new call for papers for this event is approaching, so I wanted to provide another link to the full call here and also report the basics:

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.

October 6, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 26, 2022

Another look at Oregon's drug decriminalization efforts now a few years in

A have done periodic posts (some linked below) over the last couple of years based on press accounts of Oregon's drug decriminalization efforts after state residents in Fall 2020 passed Measure 110 to makes possession of small amounts of various illicit drugs punishable by only a civil citation.  This new AP article, headlined "After rocky start, hopes up in Oregon drug decriminalization," provides the latest "updates from the front."  Here are excerpts:

Two years after Oregon residents voted to decriminalize hard drugs and dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to treatment, few people have requested the services and the state has been slow to channel the funds.

When voters passed the state’s pioneering Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act in 2020, the emphasis was on treatment as much as on decriminalizing possession of personal-use amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs.

But Oregon still has among the highest addiction rates in the country. Fatal overdoses have increased almost 20% over the previous year, with over a thousand dead. Over half of addiction treatment programs in the state lack capacity to meet demand because they don’t have enough staffing and funding, according to testimony before lawmakers.

Supporters want more states to follow Oregon’s lead, saying decriminalization reduces the stigma of addiction and keeps people who use drugs from going to jail and being saddled with criminal records. How Oregon is faring will almost certainly be taken into account if another state considers decriminalizing.

Steve Allen, behavioral health director of the Oregon Health Authority, acknowledged the rocky start, even as he announced a “true milestone” has been reached, with more than $302 million being sent to facilities to help people get off drugs, or at least use them more safely. “The road to get here has not been easy. Oregon is the first state to try such a bold and transformative approach,” Allen told a state Senate committee Wednesday.

One expert, though, told the lawmakers the effort is doomed unless people with addictions are nudged into treatment. “If there is no formal or informal pressure on addicted people to seek treatment and recovery and thereby stop using drugs, we should expect continuing high rates of drug use, addiction and attendant harm,” said Keith Humphreys, an addiction researcher and professor at Stanford University and former senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Of 16,000 people who accessed services in the first year of decriminalization, only 0.85% entered treatment, the health authority said. A total of 60% received “harm reduction” like syringe exchanges and overdose medications. An additional 15% got help with housing needs, and 12% obtained peer support....

Under the law, people receive a citation, with the maximum $100 fine waived if they call a hotline for a health assessment.  But most of the more than 3,100 tickets issued so far have been ignored, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. Few people have dialed the hotline.

Tera Hurst, executive director of Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which is focused on implementing Measure 110, said coerced treatment is ineffective. Hurst said it’s important to focus on “just building a system of care to make sure that people who need access can get access.”  Allen called the outlay of million of dollars — which come from taxes on Oregon’s legal marijuana industry — a “pivotal moment.”...

Centro Latino Americano, a nonprofit serving Latino immigrant families, plans to use its $4.5 million share to move treatment services to a bigger space and hire more staff, said manager Basilio Sandoval.  “Measure 110 makes it possible for us to provide this service free of charge,” Sandoval said. “This allows us to reach people we could not serve previously because of a lack of insurance.”

Scott Winkels, lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, said residents are running out of patience.  “People are going to need to see progress,” Winkels said.  “If you’re living in a community where you’re finding needles, how many times do you need to see a needle in a park before you lose your cool?”

Some prior related posts:

September 26, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)

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 (1)

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)