Friday, July 30, 2010

We've Come a Long Way, Baby

Day two and counting in a new world where 1/18th the amount of crack cocaine will get you the same sentence as someone with 18 times as much powder cocaine. 

And people aren't panicking.

It's so refreshing!

People are actually asking some interesting questions -- and making some downright rational observations -- about what this new world could look like.

This Chicago Sun-Times editorial questions whether Congress could have gone further and treated crack the same as powder and whether the "crack epidemic" was ever really as bad as Congress thought it was.

This Delaware piece comes right out and concedes that the last time Congress created crack sentences, it was motivated by fear, not facts:
When he was a senator, Joe Biden was a leading supporter of what amounted to a zero-tolerance approach to crack convictions, as violent crime spread from urban to suburban America. He has since acknowledged what others in the criminal justice community know to be the truth. Fear, rather than fairness, motivated the sharply different prison terms.
President Obama has said he'll sign the new crack legislation.

This interesting story from the Bristol Press puts a local perspective on crack and cocaine, highlighting a DEA seizure of over "$2 million in cocaine — 26 kilograms of powder cocaine worth $2.6 million on the street and two kilograms of crack cocaine, plus $650,000 in cash" in New Britain, Connecticut.  But instead of going haywire and saying the sky has fallen, the editors had the wisdom to distinguish this huge haul from the low-level drug users who need "treatment programs and sentences such as community service and fines."

The crack reforms passed on Wednesday certainly eased super-harsh punishments for many low-level crack offenders and addicts.

And this article puts Congress's reform in a new light entirely:  once upon a time, you could get a death threat for trying to treat crack defendants fairly.  Minnesota judge Pamela Alexander got death threats back in 1991 when she ruled that stiffer penalties for crack were discriminatory and unfair.  I hope Congressmen don't get those kinds of letters today -- we're actually beginning to have some sane and humane conversations about drugs, crime, and punishment!

And Debra Saunders, a self-described "token conservative," literally cheers on the Republicans who stepped up for a more just cocaine sentencing scheme. 

We've come a long way, baby.  I'm hearing a lot less hysterical ranting and a lot more rational conversation out there today on drug sentencing laws.  It's music to my ears.

-- Stowe

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Heard it Through the Grapevine...

A day after the huge legislative victory that changed the 100-to-1 crack-powder cocaine disparity to 18-to-1, the media is still cranking out the coverage.  This piece in The Birmingham News lauds Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and quotes FAMM President Julie Stewart, marveling at the bipartisan effort that produced the bill:

"Members of both parties deserve enormous credit for moving beyond the politics of fear and simply doing the right thing," said Julie Stewart, founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national nonprofit.
And for those who just can't get enough, here is yet even more coverage:

House eases crack cocaine sentences (Gary Fields, The Wall Street Journal)

Gap in federal cocaine sentences to narrow (Carrie Johnson, NPR)

Congress approves crack cocaine sentencing changes (Los Angeles Times)

Congress votes to reduce cocaine/crack disparity (AP, on CBS News)

Congress reduces drug sentence gap (Erik Eckholm, New York Times)

Main Justice's coverage

Reason's Hit & Run blog

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

S. 1789 Passes the House! Now, It's Obama's Turn!

S. 1789, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, was passed by the House of Representatives today!  Now the bill goes to the White House for President Obama's signature.

For full details and FAMM's take, visit this link.

Many thanks to everyone who contributed in this landmark reform effort!

Crack Reform Bill to Be Voted on Today!

Today could be a history-changing day in the world of mandatory minimum reform.  S. 1789, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, is on the docket for the House of Representatives to vote on this afternoon.

That bill, which FAMM has fought hard for, would change the notorious 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine, upping the quantities of crack that trigger 5- and 10-year mandatory minimums to 28 and 280 grams (instead of the dismally paltry 5 and 50 gram quantities that currently exist).  That wouldn't eliminate the disparity between crack and powder (which are the same drug, pharmacologically), but it would go a long way toward repairing one of the most racially discriminatory and overly harsh laws on the books.  And it would repeal the 5-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine -- the first scaling back of mandatory minimums since Nixon was in the Oval Office!

This AP News story by Jim Abrams gives the run-down and quotes FAMM President Julie Stewart.  You can follow the action live at this link.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Criminal Justice Commission One Step Closer to Life

Progress on criminal justice reform in the U.S. House today. From the FAMM release...

FAMM Celebrates House Passage of Criminal Justice Commission Bill

WASHINGTON, July 27 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) commended the U.S. House of Representatives today for its approval of H.R. 5143, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2010. The vote comes three months after Ms. Stewart joined the bill's sponsors, sentencing reform advocates, and law enforcement officials to announce the bill's introduction.

"Today's vote shows Congress is aware that our nation's criminal justice system is in need of major repair," said Ms. Stewart. "With 2.3 million people in its jails and prisons, the United States has the highest incarceration in the world. One of out of 31 Americans is under some sort of correctional supervision – jail or prison, parole or probation. Brave though we may be, we are no longer the land of the free," continued Stewart.

"We know too much about crime and rehabilitation, and about what works and what doesn't work with regard to recidivism, to continue to mindlessly sentence minor offenders to long prison sentences and inflexible mandatory minimum penalties. The moral bankruptcy of such policies is now being compounded by the fiscal bankruptcy it is visiting upon the state and federal governments.

"We applaud the House for taking this enormous step, and we look forward to seeing this bill through until it reaches the president's desk before the 111th Congress adjourns," Ms. Stewart concluded.

If enacted, H.R. 5143 will create a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the entire criminal justice system and offer concrete recommendations for reform within 18 months.

Okla - who?

At election time, it's historically been voters who have called for tough-on-crime policy stances from candidates.  Oklahoma's about as tough-on-crime as it gets, but this editorial in The Oklahoman highlights how candidates for governor are urging voters to get smart on crime:

Corrections was among the issues discussed by the gubernatorial candidates Wednesday in Tahlequah. Democrat Drew Edmondson and Republican Mary Fallin each said our next governor will have to look at the issues that contribute to our high incarceration rate, such as mental health and drug abuse. "Every study of our prison system has told us the same thing — 80 to 90 percent of those incarcerated have a drug, alcohol or mental health problem," Edmondson said.
A former prosecutor and now attorney general, Edmondson said repeat offenders "finally run the DA and judge out of patience and end up with a Draconian sentence."
Another Democrat, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, said Oklahoma has reduced treatment options for inmates who have substance abuse problems, and pointed to Minnesota's use of community-based programs to help curb illegal activity before it results in prison time. Like Fallon, Republican candidate Randy Brogdon, who is staunchly conservative, said more faith-based and community-based programs are needed. "I think we truly need to move from warehousing to reform," he said.
Being tough on crime remains popular. During the 2010 session of the Legislature, lawmakers introduced more than two dozen bills to create new felony crimes and nearly 20 bills that sought to increase the penalties for other crimes. But it's encouraging to see that those who wish to be the next governor are at least indicating they're willing to entertain new ways to deal with this serious and costly problem.
Both Republicans and Democrats calling for reform!  And using Yankee state Minnesota as an example to follow!  Toto, I don’t think we're in Kansas anymore...I mean, not in Oklahoma anymore...are we?


This kind of article should be the norm, not the exception.  One mark of a good leader is telling the public when they’ve gone off the tracks – and in Oklahoma, its overly zealous corrections policies have led to a big, expensive mess for the state.  Should be interesting to see whether the voters get on board, and whether the winning candidate stays on a track for reform.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Say No to Drugs, Say Yes to Tacos

The blog of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports the results of a new poll conducted by Angus Reed, showing that 65% of those surveyed think the federal government's "War on Drugs" has been a failure.  And that 65% isn't just a horde of Democrats, either -- 64% of Republicans and 70% of Independents agree that the battle against drugs hasn't worked.

Other interesting tidbits:
Nearly half of those surveyed say Mexico should be blamed for allowing its drug cartels to grow and flourish: 34 percent believe the U.S. should be blamed for having a population that demands illegal drugs.

The poll tested impressions of Mexico.  Nearly 80 percent voiced a favorable view of Mexican food, and 59 percent were favorably inclined toward the Mexican people.  But only 32 percent of those surveyed had a favorable view of immigrants from Mexico who live in the United States.
More than a third of those surveyed also reported having a favorable opinion of Mexican beer.

So, America will take the beer, pot, and tacos, but hold the immigrants.  If you can find us a poll that produces a more bizarre cross-sampling of poll topics, we're all ears. 


Booze and burritos aside, these poll numbers are compelling.  The War on Drugs has sent millions to prisons, at enormous costs.  If the public doesn't want to (literally) buy into that system anymore, it's time to start considering how we can create a more effective strategy.

NYT Calls for Crack Reform to Pass!

Today the New York Times joins the chorus of people calling for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the 18-to-1 crack cocaine reform bill: 

A “tough on crime” federal law that requires harsher prison terms for people arrested with crack cocaine than with the powered version of the drug is scientifically indefensible and hugely unfair. A bill that reduces this onerous sentencing disparity has passed the Senate easily. The House, which has been vacillating over whether or not to schedule a vote on the Senate bill, needs to show the same good sense.
As the Times correctly notes, there is a lot of bipartisan and law enforcement support for the 18-to-1 ratio crafted and passed unanimously by the Senate:
The Senate passed its bill unanimously with the support of law enforcement groups like the National District Attorneys Association and the sponsorship of conservative Republicans, including Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. That means that House members have all the political cover they need to quickly do the same.

Friday, July 23, 2010

If It's Broke, Fix It

Today's Houston Chronicle features this op-ed from Eric Sterling, a/k/a the man who was there at the beginning, when Congress created our current mandatory minimum drug laws (including those for crack cocaine) back in 1986:

I was the assistant counsel to the House Judiciary Committee assigned to help the committee get the numbers right, but we failed. Congress picked different quantities for various drugs to identify drug traffickers who would get at least five years, and up to 40 years, in prison - 100 grams of heroin, 10 grams of pure PCP, one gram of LSD, 500 grams of cocaine powder and five grams of crack cocaine. Larger quantities, such as 5,000 grams of cocaine powder or 50 grams of crack cocaine, get a mandatory sentence of 10 years and up to life in prison. Obviously, in the world of major league cocaine traffickers who smuggle tons of cocaine (a metric ton is 1 million grams), these are trivial quantities.
Sterling nicely highlights one of the compelling reasons the House should pass the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and alleviate some of that unfair 100-to-1 disparity between powder and crack cocaine:  the current crack quantities (50 grams earns you 10 years) have "sent tens of thousands of low-level crack cocaine dealers to much longer prison terms than cocaine kingpins."

As Sterling shows by his own example, it's never too late to admit that a system is broken and fix it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

And Still More Conservative Support for Crack Reform

Pat Nolan is the vice president of Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest ministry to prisoners and their families. His persuasive call for fixing the crack disparity is in Friday's Washington Times.

A couple highlights deserve quoting. Of the Fair Sentencing Act pending before the House, Nolan speaks directly to his base of conservative allies and fans:

This is not a harebrained liberal scheme to set loose a horde of drug traffickers on the streets. Instead, it is a chance to correct an imbalance in our sentencing laws and is co-sponsored by some of the most conservative members of the Senate, including Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, a physician from Oklahoma, and Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions and John Cornyn, former attorneys general of Alabama and Texas, respectively.
And then, near the close, there's this eloquent look at the reform's philosophical bases:
Our federal laws should reflect our shared values - values that include liberty, equality and compassion. Enactment of the reform bill pending in the House would advance all of these values. It would put an end to excessive deprivations of freedom; it would treat drug offenders equally, and it would demonstrate compassion for those who commit minor offenses yet deserve a second chance to fulfill their responsibilities to family and community.
Good stuff.




FAMM in The Economist!

FAMM's Barb Dougan and Profile of Injustice Michelle Collette are prominently featured in a superb piece from The Economist entitled "Rough Justice in America:  Too Many Laws, Too Many Prisoners."


Enjoy the full article, because it is worth every minute you'll spend reading it.

Books, Not Prison Beds

This fascinating article in the UK's The Guardian highlights an alternative to incarceration that just might shock you:  putting offenders in reading groups instead of in prisons.


Changing Lives Through Literature is the brainchild of a University of Massachusetts English professor (shocking, I know) and is currently being used in eight states.  Single-sex groups of repeat offenders (yes, you read that right) meet regularly on university campuses to read and discuss books together.  Reading materials could touch on themes ranging from male identity, anger management, fate, love, and liberty, to countless others.  Through discussion, the participants can gain literacy, respect for others, and insight on some of the issues that led to their own criminal behavior.


The program isn't just innovative, it's surprisingly effective -- and cost-effective:

Of the 597 who have completed the course in Brazoria County, Texas, between 1997 and 2008, only 36 (6%) had their probations revoked and were sent to jail.
A year-long study of the first cohort that went through the programme, which was founded in Massachusetts in 1991, found that only 19% had reoffended compared with 42% in a control group. And those from the programme who did reoffend committed less serious crimes. ....
In Texas, the public have been largely won over by the success rates and how cheap the programme is to run. Instead of spending a lifetime in prison at a cost of more than $30,000 (£19,520) a year, [one offender's] "rehabilitation" cost the taxpayer just $500 (£325).
And yes, you read that correctly:  the program operates in Texas.
Overincarceration is a big problem with a huge price tag.  If America is going to cut incarceration rates, we will need lots of smart solutions -- and the bravery to try something new -- to achieve that goal.  Getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences should be the first (and smartest) move, but it shouldn't be the last.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Washington Post urges Congress to pass crack reform!

Today's Washington Post features an editorial calling on the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, a bill that has already passed through the Senate and that would reduce the current 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine to a more rational 18-to-1.  This simple change would save American taxpayers millions of dollars and help restore a sense of fair play to an important area of federal criminal justice.  And it would repeal -- for the first time since Nixon was president -- a mandatory minimum sentence, the 5-year term for simple possession of crack cocaine.

Passing the Fair Sentencing Act isn't just part of some liberal agenda, either.  As the Post notes:

The bill has garnered support from Republican and conservative leaders such as Asa Hutchinson, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The Senate unanimously passed the measure in the spring. It is time for the House to embrace it as well.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What Lindsay Lohan Can Teach America About Jail

Kevork Djansezian/Getty
After all the celebrity gossip, courtroom drama, and E! television updates, Lindsay Lohan did today what many non-celebs have done to much less fanfare:  she reported to court, was put in handcuffs, and went to jail.

This People headline set the mood:  "Lindsay Lohan is 'Scared but Resolute.'

People also reported on some of the details of jail time that rarely hit the press and are barely thought of by those who haven't been inside:  no internet access, generic brand deoderant, personal property confiscated, 22 hours a day in a 12-by-8 cell.  Or, put in blunter terms:  "Lindsay Lohan's Jail Hell:  No Smoking, Tweeting, or Hair Extensions."

In all seriousness, 90 days may not sound like much to someone who's never been in jail or prison. And, yes, Ms. Lohan will probably only actually be in jail for 14 to 30 days, because of jail overcrowding.  Some may think LiLo got off easy.  But her story is a reminder that every year, jail becomes scarily real for millions of Americans, and it's not pleasant. 

Here in America, we've turned complaining about "slaps on the wrist" into an art form.  Sentences have gotten longer and longer, and yet we still clamor for people to be given more time.  I wonder if we haven't lost touch with what that time really means -- namely, because so many of us have never done any time at all.

I don't know about you, but 14 to 30 days of my life are awfully valuable.  Maybe LiLo's case can teach Americans to think a little harder about what "hard time" means. 

-- Stowe

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Clock is Ticking In Massachusetts!

FAMM's Massachusetts maven Barb Dougan has a great post over at the Blue Mass Group today.

July 31 is the end of the formal legislative session in Massachusetts, which means there's still time to include mandatory  minimum sentencing reforms in a crime bill moving through the legislature.

It would be a crime -- not to mention a missed opportunity -- to leave out those important sentencing reforms this summer.

Smart Policies Bearing Fruit in the Garden State

FAMM was excited to help New Jersey earlier this year pass a law that limited the reach of the state's drug-free school zones act. The old law was responsible for imposing long, mandatory minimums on people who were not targeting schoolchildren. As this article makes clear, this reform was just the latest in a long line of smart-on-crime reforms the Garden State has enacted over the past several years. The result? New Jersey has experienced a full 15 percent reduction in its prison population, without resorting to the kinds of emergency release programs that budget crises have forced other states to employ.

Friday, July 16, 2010

You're Wrong. No, really, you are...

You know them.  I know them.  They're those people who have their facts wrong or don't know the facts, but believe they're right anyway.  And sometimes, the more you try to educate them, the deeper they dig themselves in.  Even when they get the right facts, they still hold onto the wrong beliefs.  And they hold on even tighter than they did before.

What can we do with these kinds of people?

Perhaps nothing, says this lengthy but fascinating and worthwhile article in the Boston Globe.  It blows some holes in one of the deepest, most sacred assumptions about our democracy, the idea that educated citizens (and legislators) make better choices at the polls and in the halls of Congress.

After summing up a lot of political science research, the article comes to this crushing conclusion:  Giving people good facts about an issue (say, sentencing laws) may not mean people actually change their minds.  It might actually make them even more devoted to their wrong beliefs.

Find out why -- and how it might be possible to get around this sticky problem -- by reading the article.

--Stowe

Treatment and Trafficking on the Radio

Over at NPR this week, their Tell Me More show will do a series of shows on the Obama Administration's new, more treatment-focused approach to the war on drugs, which we blogged about here.

This piece, "Dealing with Drugs: Family Based Treatment Options," features two experts bantering about how and whether drug treatment works and helps families stay together, as well as whether the Obama agenda can make good on its goals to reduce drug abuse and addiction in America.

Also, yesterday's Tell Me More featured this interesting story about how drug trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border is impacting America's Native American community. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Another Conservative on Crack (Reform)

Check out this must-read piece in Roll Call from former Reagan-appointed prosecutor, GOP Congressman, and W.-appointed DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson. Highlight:

I first came across this matter while a Member of Congress in the ’90s, serving on the House Judiciary Committee. In reviewing data on federal prosecutions and sentences from the 10 years since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was enacted, it became apparent that the disparity between powdered and crack cocaine sentences was failing on two points.

First, it did not consistently lead to the prosecution of major drug traffickers and sellers; it led to increased prosecutions of small-time dealers and peripheral supporters, such as boyfriends or girlfriends.

Second, with a better understanding of crack — its chemical properties and effects on the body — it was becoming clear that the courts were giving different punishments for the same crime. Powdered and cooked cocaine are chemically the same. Further, crack does not inherently cause violence; rather, violence is a product of the drug trade and the historically violent trends in areas where crack is predominantly used and sold. Thus, giving substantially longer prison sentences for crack over powdered cocaine is as illogical as it is unfair.

While head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, I talked with front-line agents and drug task force officers who said the sentencing disparity was undermining community confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system. This sense of inequity can have real impacts in the day-to-day fight against illegal narcotics; a perception of inequality makes it more difficult for agents to receive cooperation from informants and others. Yet another challenge resulting from the law — disparity harms rather than helps our federal anti-crime efforts.

It's time for Congress to reform the crack disparity. The House must pass the Fair Sentencing Act that the Senate approved unanimously in March. Time is running out.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Meet Robert Anger

Robert Anger grew up amid the beauty of Vermont. He was happiest doing outside activities, such as fishing, swimming and basketball at his family’s camp on Lake Champlain. But Robert struggled with learning disabilities in school and dropped out at 17, although he earned his GED. After school, he also found it difficult to hold down a job. He worked construction or factory jobs for a few weeks before he quit or was fired.

Robert Anger (on right)
and family
Robert started using marijuana and alcohol as a teen, and was arrested for possession of both. He first tried oxycontin when he was 19. He soon found himself addicted, needing it on a daily basis. At that point, Robert began to sell cocaine to support his drug addiction. When oxycontin was not available, he turned to heroin to prevent withdrawal. Each time he tried to quit using drugs, he became very sick and resumed his drug use. Only his brother and his girlfriend saw him use drugs and knew about his addiction.

In 2004, Robert drove from Vermont to Massachusetts, where he had arranged to buy $15,000 worth of cocaine in Springfield. He planned to resell most of it to support his $300/day oxycontin addiction. The area was under police surveillance and officers intervened midway through the transaction, arresting both Robert and his supplier. The supplier fled before their 2006 trial; only Robert was convicted of trafficking over 200 grams of cocaine.

Like countless other judges forced to issue the mandatory minimum sentence imposed by law, Judge Judd J. Carhart stated, “I wish I had discretion.” But he didn't have discretion. And so Judge Carhart sentenced 22-year old Robert to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, based solely on the weight of the drugs.

While out on bail after his arrest, Robert decided to change his life. With much support from his girlfriend and family, he was able to quit using oxycontin and heroin. “That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” recalls Robert, “but I am proud that I was able to do it.” He also held down a steady job making furniture. His employer wrote a letter to the sentencing judge, describing Robert as industrious and reliable and stating his willingness to rehire him.

Robert’s family has been a strong source of support. They drive the nine-hour roundtrip each month to visit him. His mother frequently sends photos of the Vermont wilderness, sometimes getting up before dawn so she can photograph the sunrise. In 2008, Robert’s brother wrote to Governor Patrick, noting that Robert’s extreme sentence was longer than the national average for time served for murder. Robert is studying in order to take college level courses. Upon his release he would like to continue his education and get a job, perhaps working with at-risk teenagers. As he says, “Maybe they would listen to someone who has already lived through bad choices.”

If Anger's sentence makes you angry, help FAMM fight for sentencing reform in Massachusetts. To learn more about our efforts, click here.

Less War, More Sentencing Sanity?

Today, over at The Grio, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske spells out a new approach to the war on drugs: 

In May, President Obama announced this administration's 2010 National Drug Control Strategy, a comprehensive and balanced plan built upon the experience and insights of people who deal with drug issues on a daily basis across this nation.

This new approach to the effort to curb drug use and its consequences is grounded in three basic truths:

Drug use takes a terrible toll on public health, and requires a public health policy response on the same scale as our public safety response to the issue. The U.S. public health and healthcare systems need to assume a larger role in addressing drug use, and addiction treatment programs need to be integrated into mainstream medicine.

Because the drug problem stems primarily from drug use within the United States, effective drug policy must begin at home. We must and will continue multi-national, collaborative efforts to reduce the international production and trafficking of drugs. But we must also realize that the most promising solution to the U.S. drug problem starts right here: in curbing our enormous demand for drugs.


We now have an unprecedented number of scientifically evaluated tools and best practices to use in response to the drug problem. Evidence-based policing programs can disrupt drug markets. Prevention research has shown us how communities can more effectively protect their young people from substance use, and advances in pharmaceutical and psychological treatment offer new hope to those struggling with the disease of addiction.
Kerlikowske also pinpoints crack cocaine sentencing laws as an area ripe for reform right now:
ONDCP is committed to pursuing evidence-based policies grounded in objective facts and data, which can help counter harmful racial stereotypes. For instance, 85 percent of Federal crack cocaine defendants are African-American, and the existing mandatory minimum disparity between crack and powder cocaine cannot be justified based on pharmacological differences.
This administration is actively working with Congress to promote equity in penalties for cocaine-related crimes, while retaining the tools needed by law enforcement to protect communities from the violence associated with drug trafficking. There's an obvious incentive to change laws with disproportionate racial impact, but an additional benefit to promoting equitable sentencing is that it will increase the public's confidence in our criminal justice system. That confidence is critical, because the criminal justice system has an important role to play in a balanced approach to the drug problem.
You can check out the administration's full (and lengthy) plan for transitioning to a saner approach to the war on drugs here.  And you can read FAMM's thoughts on the new strategy here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The More, the Merrier

If sentencing reform advocates hope to restore some sanity to the criminal justice system, we are going to need as many allies as we can find. It also means we need to find common ground wherever possible. The Heritage Foundation, working closely with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has worked hard to highlight the issue of "overcriminalization" over the past couple of years. Their focus has been on the explosion of new federal criminal laws, especially those with weak or no intent requirement. These laws not only tread on the traditional police powers of the states, but they expose American citizens to criminal liability for conduct they might not even know is prohibited.

For those of us alarmed by the fact that 2.3 million Americans are in jail or prison, and that 1 in 31 of our fellow citizens is in jail or prison, on parole or probation, increasing overcriminalization is an important issue. One reason so many people are in jail for so long is because of stupid sentencing laws. Another reason is because we have made so much activity criminal in the first place. The fight for comprehensive reform will need all of us working on the same side.

Check out Heritage's Overciminalization site here, with the usual caveat that we are not responsible for the content of every site we recomend to you.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Lindsay Lohan: Future Sentencing Nerd?

Lindsay Lohan is steamin' mad about her 90-day jail sentence for violating parole conditions of her previous convictions for DUI.  How mad is she, you ask?

So mad, she's resorted to Tweeting excerpts of FAMM friend Erik Luna's 2002 article on the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.  While Luna's work is a must-read for the most devoted of sentencing nerds, it won't help LiLo, who was sentenced in California state court.  The federal sentencing guidelines only apply in federal courts.

But it was a brave first foray into the field by LiLo, and we can't blame her for the mistake -- sentencing law is complicated stuff, and even its die-hard fans don't understand it sometimes.  (For years now, I've been on a personal quest to simplify it as much as possible for those of us who didn't go to law school.)

But I'm glad Ms. Lohan is investigating.  It's sad but true:  most people don't care about sentencing law until it hits home, landing like a Scud missile and blowing their lives or the lives of their loved ones to smithereens.  A lot of people impacted by America's lock-'em-up policies just serve the time and move on with their lives.  Others take their experience and try to educate the public and change the system. 

I hope Ms. Lohan will use her experience to do the latter.

--Stowe

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Apocalypse Now: Oregon's Impending Budget Doom

Fewer teachers, or fewer prisons?  Paying more for health care, or locking fewer people up?  The choices are truly that stark for voters in Oregon this year, as this effective op-ed from The Oregonian shows.

Oregon's in a budget bind.  Back in September 2009, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski created a Reset Cabinet to review the state's "unsustainable" costs of providing services to Oregonians.  In May, the Reset Cabinet released the "Reset" report, basically telling Oregon to "rethink and refocus our priorities" -- or else.  While not quite rising to the level of "It's the end of the world!", the Reset report is pretty darn grim. 

One of the four horsemen of Oregon's coming budget apocalypse is public safety, which eats up 16% of Oregon's cash each year.  Back in 1994, Oregon voters passed a slew of mandatory minimum laws -- and now they're paying for it, big time:

After years of little growth in prison capacity, tougher sentencing laws for violent criminals enacted by Measure 11 (1994) required the state to build more facilities and hire more staff in order to send more criminals to prison for longer periods of time. This squeezed funding for other programs, even within the public safety area. The Oregon State Police (OSP) suffered staffing reductions from the 1980s through the middle of this decade. Also, in response to the economic downturn experienced in 2002-03, courts were forced to close one day a week.
Still, shares of the public’s tax dollars and the state’s general fund expenditures for public safety programs have increased significantly over the past two decades, primarily because of the construction and operation of new prisons. State prisons housed 5,841 prisoners in 1990, compared to 14,000 today
So, in short, more mandatory minimums has meant fewer cops and closed courts.  How on earth does that increase public safety?

And things are only expected to get worse, according to the report:
In 2008, the voters approved the legislative referral of Measure 57, which increased sentences for persons convicted of repeat property crimes and required drug and alcohol treatment for addicted offenders at high risk of committing new crimes in the future. Portions of this measure were suspended by the legislature in 2009 due to budget constraints, but these provisions are scheduled to come back into effect in 2012.

Oregon’s prison population is expected to increase from 14,000 to 16,000 during the next decade, absent any changes in sentencing laws and practices.
I can hear the naysayers now:  "But surely, giving people mandatory minimums has reduced crime -- so it's worth the costs!"  The op-ed from The Oregonian doesn't disagree, but cites this devastating fact:
The Reset report notes that crime is down not just in Oregon, but also in states that haven't embraced mandatory minimum sentences
Ouch.  Okay, Oregon voters, it's up to you:
So, are you willing to see more non-violent offenders diverted away from prison and into local programs that emphasize drug and alcohol treatment, rehabilitation and job training? Or are you ready to double down, and vote for longer mandatory sentences for sex offenders and repeat drunk drivers, two measures expected on the November ballot?
Pick your poison, Oregonians.  We encourage you to take the route other states have taken, and reject more mandatory minimums.  It sounds like your survival depends on it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

To Lindsay Lohan: Overcrowding Isn't Just for Ordinary Inmates!

Photo by David McNew, AP
Lindsay Lohan is going to jail.  Us Weekly reports that the actress, singer, and Hollywood bad girl was sentenced to 90 days in the Los Angeles County Jail yesterday for driving under the influence and reckless driving. 

Or was she?

According to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Lohan probably won't serve more than 25% of her sentence -- that's 22 days.  Why will Lohan luck out?  Jail overcrowding.  The LA lock-up is one of the most notoriously overcrowded systems in the country, which turns the jail's front door into something more like a revolving door.  To keep the system from imploding, nonviolent offenders like Lohan serve less time.  Lindsay should consider changing her name to Lucky Lohan.  Overcrowding:  it's not just for ordinary inmates!

People are always complaining about how the criminal justice system goes easy on celebrities, but in this instance, you really can't blame the judge.  In fact, according to USA Today, the judge was sending a disrespectful Lohan a very tough message.  Lohan's father pleaded with the court to give her access to treatment for a prescription drug addiction, not jail time.  Lohan will get rehab, but she'll do the time, too.

Rolling Stone contributing editor David Wild has offered Lohan some suggestions for how to rock n' roll her way through those 22 days.

To me, this (sad) story serves as just one more reminder of how arbitrary the justice system can be -- not because the people running it are doing a poor job, but because the system has relied too much on prisons and jails.  Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that 90 days in jail is a fair sentence for Lohan.  She isn't getting a break from the court; any break she gets in the actual amount of time served is the result of an over-reliance on jails in the first place.  Creating overcrowded jails and prisons can mean the wrong people serve too much time, and the right people don't serve enough.

That's what I call a lose-lose situation.

-- Stowe

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Conservatives on Crack

Historic legislation to dramatically reduce the infamous 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences was approved by a unanimous Senate in March. Now action has moved to the House where the bill's proponents are showcasing the impressive level of conservative support for the bill. From the June 21 edition of Roll Call:

K Street Files: Big Reagan Admirers Fight Laws He Signed

June 21, 2010
By Matthew Murray and Anna Palmer
Roll Call Staff
________________________________

A group of prominent conservatives is promoting a proposal that would throw out Reagan-era drug sentencing laws that detractors claim are racist. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) recently asked House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to sign on to a bill, the Fair Sentencing Act, which would "reduce the unjustified disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences."

"The bill will protect public safety by focusing federal resources on the prosecution of major and serious traffickers and will allow states to focus on the street dealers and users," reads a May 25 letter signed by the three, who added that it "will increase confidence in the criminal justice system by reducing the perception of racial bias."

"According to analyses by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences has had a disproportionately negative impact on African Americans," they added. "Blacks use crack at about the same rate as whites but nearly 80 percent of federal crack defendants in 2009 were African American, and crack sentences were, on average, over two years longer than sentences for powder cocaine offenses."

The letter was also signed by Prison Fellowship Vice President Pat Nolan and Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute.

The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent in March but awaits House action.
We hope the House acts before the window for long overdue, bipartisan sentencing reform closes.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

For the July 4th weekend, please consider these words about the necessary balance between an individual's right to freedom and society's right to punish:

"Every act of authority of one man over another, for which there is not an absolute necessity, is tyrannical. It is upon this then, that the sovereign's right to punish crimes is founded; that is, upon the necessity of defending the public liberty, entrusted to his care, from the usurpation of individuals; and punishments are just in proportion, as the liberty, preserved by the sovereign, is sacred and valuable."
 -Cesare M. Beccaria, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments 20 (Adolph Caso ed., 1984).

And a little rebel music from a man who never forgot that even the unfree are human, too:
 

 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bad Journalism, Bad Justice

The newspaper industry is in the throes of a long, painful death, but I don't think it deserves to survive if I keep seeing some of the atrociously biased crime articles I've seen lately. 

Take this shockingly bad and one-sided article in The New York Daily News, which claims (based on the arguments of one New York Special Prosecutor, Bridget Brennan) that last year's reforms to New York's Rockefeller drug laws "have let hardened drug dealers escape jail by claiming they're marijuana addicts."  Under last year's reforms, drug addicts can be deferred to drug court programs for supervision and treatment rather than go to prison. 

Brennan's fear is that offenders are "gam[ing] the system."  In support, the article includes two examples -- and in one of these, the defendant was actually not diverted to drug court.  Some case for abusing the system.

The article, to its credit, does cite reform advocates and even another New York prosecutor as saying that allegations of abuse are overblown:
Drug law reform advocates say Brennan is using a few examples to make the program look bad.

"She's tooth-and-nail against the Rockefeller laws being changed," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance. "She is taking one case and blowing it up ...to affect thousands of other people who should get treatment instead of jail."

"Special Narcotics still measures success by the number of people they put in jail rather than effectiveness in reducing crime," said William Gibney of the Legal Aid Society.

Nestor Ferreiro, chief of the Bronx district attorney's narcotics bureau, said "some people are trying to take advantage of the law." But, he added, "the judges and the diversion staff are pretty good at catching it."
Exactly.  So, where are the quotes from interviews with these "judges and the diversion staff" about whether defendants are faking addictions and fooling the court?  Nowhere to be found.  What about the public defenders and other attorneys actually representing these alleged system-gamers?  Nowhere to be found.  How about some quotes from people who are indisputably addicted to drugs and have successfully completed the drug court program?  Nowhere to be found.

The article doesn't seem willing to concede that maybe, just maybe, fears of widespread abuse of the Rockefeller law reforms are a bit exaggerated, so it ends by quoting a police officer (another unbiased participant in the criminal justice system, to be sure) who was shocked that an alleged manager of a drug conspiracy got diverted to drug court.

If you don't believe me that the article is one-sided and has an agenda, read the poll question floating in the side column: 
Get out of jail free pass:  Do you think the Rockefeller drug laws were watered down TOO much?

Yes, now hard drug dealers are getting off easier!

No, the laws were unfair and harsh in the first place!
I did not find it surprising that a whopping 77% voted yes.  How could you not after reading such an incomplete and inflammatory article about the impact of the Rockefeller law reforms?

For another example of crime journalism gone bad, read this piece from a local Florida paper.  Note the features it shares with its Daily Mail cousin:  no interviews of judges, drug court or drug addiction experts, public defenders, or drug offenders.  Apparently, according to that article, what prosecutors say is gospel ... and what everyone else says is so worthless it's not even worth seeking out.

Bad journalism has historically played a role in creating bad justice.  It was the media that, in the 1980s, helped to whip America's fear of drugs into a frenzy.  That frenzy led straight to the mandatory minimum drug laws we're stuck with today. 

If we want to see reform, we need to see better, more objective journalism about crime.

-- Stowe

Pennsylvania: Joining the Ranks?

Is Pennsylvania the next cash-strapped state to sink its teeth into sentencing reform?  Maybe, according to this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Look how dire the circumstances are in the Keystone State:

Pennsylvania spends more on corrections than 44 other states, according to Mr. Waters, who is sponsoring three bills aiming to reform sentencing.

The state's Department of Corrections budget is now approaching $2 billion a year, more than 55 times what it was nearly 40 years ago, according to Mr. Waters' figures.

Mr. Greenleaf said if the prison population continues to increase at the current rate, Pennsylvania may have to build a new prison every year, at the cost of more than $200 million per prison. Three new prisons are already scheduled to be built by 2014, and they will be immediately filled if trends continue.
With numbers like that, how can Pennsylvania refuse reforms?  For real cost savings, lawmakers should do a wholesale reassessment of the wisdom of Pennsylvania's mandatory minimum laws (there are a bunch of them).  There comes a point at which little cuts and small changes can only go so far.  Pennsylvania may have reached that point already.

Guns Don't Kill People. Scottish People with Knives Kill People.

Interesting little story from across the Atlantic. The Scottish parliament beat back an effort to impose 6-month mandatory minimum prison sentences for anyone carrying a knife. The effort was led not, as you might have imagined, by a coalition of Scottish chefs, but rather a sensible group of parliamentarians backed by the Scottish Justice Secretary who said one-size-fits-all approaches do not work. (Hear that, Canada? Hear that, Obama administration?)

Award for best contribution to the debate goes to Green MSP Patrick Harvie who said:  "There are some things legislation is not good for. Distinguishing between a frightened wee boy who made a mistake and knows he has and a genuine thug who poses a threat is something legislation can't do - the courts have to do that."

- Ingersoll

Michelle Taylor's Attorneys Take Case to NV Supreme Court

We're late in mentioning this, but last month, the process of trying to undo one of the most outrageous criminal sentences in Nevada’s recent history began in earnest. On June 3rd, Michelle Taylor’s attorneys informed the Nevada Supreme Court of the grounds upon which she will seek to appeal the mandatory life sentence Ms. Taylor received in April. If you don’t know what Michelle Taylor was sentenced for, then you must not be one of the 20,000 people who have watched her sentencing hearing on YouTube.

The saga began last November when an Elko County jury found the 34-year-old Taylor guilty of lewdness with a minor under the age of 14. Her offense was forcing a 13-year-old boy to touch her breast over her clothing and asking him to have sex with her. That her conduct was despicable is beyond debate, but her sentence was equally outrageous.

Thanks to a mandatory minimum law enacted by Nevada in 2005, Ms. Taylor was sentenced to life in prison (with parole eligibility after 10 years), a punishment greater than any previously issued to a woman convicted of a sex offense in the state. In fact, Ms. Taylor’s lawyer pointed out that she likely would have received a lighter sentence if she had killed the boy. To be sure, mandatory life sentences are usually reserved for the most violent and repeat offenders.

Why did Ms. Taylor get such an excessive sentence? As the video of her sentencing shows, the judge was not allowed to consider relevant factors at sentencing, such as whether this was her first such crime (it was) or whether medical experts who evaluated her thought she would be likely to commit another crime in the future (they concluded the opposite). All he could do was give her the sentence required by law: life behind bars.

All mandatory minimums strip discretion away from judges, leaving extraordinary power in the hands of prosecutors. In Michelle’s case, as in others, the prosecutors bringing the case had wide discretion to charge her with any number of crimes that carried different penalties. For unknown reasons, they chose to prosecute her under this particular statute. They also refused to offer Michelle a plea deal, a refusal the judge openly questioned at her sentencing.

“I don't agree that the Nevada… legislature should have made this a mandatory sentence,” the District Attorney, Gary Woodbury, told local media. “I think it's dumb. But they didn't ask me about that." Well, now the legislators are being asked about their work and even they seem to be walking away from it.

State Sen. Bill Raggio
Nevada State Senator Bill Raggio, one of the sponsors of the bill imposing a blanket mandatory life sentence for all lewdness charges, was quoted as saying, "You know, you draft the law because of the more serious cases, and you can't always foresee that something maybe far less could come under that condition.” Opponents of mandatory minimums could not have said it any better.

Everyone would agree that the laws in this country should protect children and other vulnerable people. But no reasonable person can believe that this sentence fits the crime. If Michelle fails to be granted parole and lives to the age of average life expectancy, she will spend the next 46 years in jail. And the taxpayers of Nevada will be forced spend more than $1 million to house, feed, and provide medical care for her.

Sentencing is not an exact science. There is no Platonic ideal sentence for each crime. But the hard work of fashioning appropriate sentences should not be skirted by enacting one-size-fits-all sentences that advance neither individual justice nor public safety.

We sentencing nerds at FAMM know more than we ever wanted to about the intricacies of federal and state sentencing law, the philosophical underpinnings of its development, and the political dynamics that shape its future. But all a normal person has to do to see why the current sentencing system is badly broken and in need of repair is watch the video of Michelle Taylor receiving her life sentence.

That more than 20,000 Americans have already done so suggests that the appeal her attorneys filed last month will attract attention from parts far away from Elko County, Nevada.