Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What's a Week of Your Life Worth to You?

Overincarceration doesn't just result from sentences that are too long by years or decades -- sentences that are too long by weeks also add up to overcrowded, unsafe, and expensive prison systems.

Federal prisoners are allowed to earn 54 days for each year of their so-called “term of imprisonment” for good behavior.  It's called good time credit. The Supreme Court just settled a long-standing dispute about what “term of imprisonment” means.  The bottom line is that, depending on who is calculating it, well-behaved prisoners could get 47 days of time off each year (based on the federal Bureau of Prisons' calculation) or 54 days off (based on the calculation method supported by the defense community and FAMM).  The Supreme Court sided with the Bureau of Prisons.  Now the action shifts to Congress to fix the math.

Federal Public Defender and friend of FAMM Stephen Sady breaks it down in this article from The National Law Journal.  The pros of awarding the full 54 days:  "prevent[ing] up to 36,000 years of federal overincarceration, saving taxpayers up to $951 million."  Those extra seven days can add up fast – and add up to big bucks.  Since the Bureau of Prisons is severely overcrowded, removing these extra weeks would also get a lot of people out just a little bit sooner.  That little bit could make a big difference.

For a lot of prisoners, denying them those extra seven days each year is like putting vinegar in a wound.  Those weeks add up over the course of a decade-long sentence (the average federal prison sentence is 8 years).  A lot of birthdays, funerals, graduations, and family milestones can happen in those missed weeks.

What's a week of your life worth to you?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Paris in Vegas: A Cocaine Story

Photo: Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
That could be the title of the next celebrity docudrama involving hotel heiress Paris Hilton, who was charged with felony cocaine possession in Las Vegas, Nevada this weekend.  Apparently, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas when you're a celebrity heiress -- it gets spread all over MTV.

But Hilton's "I borrowed my friend's bag and -- oh! -- it has coke in it!" story is interesting, and not just because I will blog about virtually any celeb in trouble with the law (here's a shot of Lindsay Lohan going to see her probation officer -- see, they really are just like the rest of us!).  Is Hilton's story plausible?  Has she been wrongly accused?  Will this juicy tidbit get even more coverage than the war in Afghanistan tonight on CNN?  You tell me.

According to court documents obtained by TMZ (yes, you read that correctly), the police found .8 grams of cocaine, and possession of that amount of cocaine garners probation or up to four years in prison in Nevada.  The coke emerged from the allegedly borrowed purse when Hilton dove in there to retrieve her lip balm.  I don't make this stuff up, folks, I just repeat it.

But seriously, up to four years in prison for less than a gram of cocaine?  Is that a smart use of Nevada's prison resources?  Maybe there are a few people out there (somewhere) who find Paris Hilton frightening, but I'll also wager the state of Nevada isn't on that list.  Whatever happened to the concept of saving prison space for truly dangerous people?


Race to (Un)Incarcerate

This lengthy but riveting piece in The Indianapolis Star reads more like an indictment of Indiana's addiction to harsh punishments and prisons:
For decades, Indiana's answer to crime has been to adopt tough new laws and strict sentencing policies to make sure offenders stay behind bars. 

Since 2000, the legislature has passed 117 criminal laws or penalty enhancements. In the same time, Indiana lawmakers have passed not one measure that reduces a prison sentence.

The result: Indiana's prison population has jumped by more than 40 percent, and the cost of running the prisons has soared by 76 percent, to $679 million a year.

By 2017, Indiana Department of Correction officials say, the cost will balloon to more than $1 billion.

So, who's in favor of cutting back in the state that produces more racing car emissions than anywhere else in the world?  Indiana Department of Corrections Commissioner Ed Buss, at the command of Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, and the Republican chair of the state's Senate Judiciary Committee.  The state has hired the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments to do an audit of Indiana's system and make it run better and more cost-effectively.  In other words, it's a good ole-fashioned pit stop for the state.

Of course, one fast way to save prison beds is to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences and let judges decide who does hard time and how much. That's one reform we hope to see emerge in Indiana and in other cash-strapped states around the country.

A New Mandatory Sentencing Suggestion for Florida

This superb op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel highlights FAMM Profiles of Injustice Scott Earle and Erik Weyant, and its title suggests an interesting sentencing reform option for the state of Florida:  instead of mandatory minimums, the state should "try mandatory sentencing alternatives."  A snippet:

Mandatory minimum laws have not only helped overstock Florida prisons, they've contributed to the viral growth of corrections budgets. In 1995, the state corrections budget was $1.6 billion. This year it stands at just over $2.2 billion. Incarcerating just the more than 5,100 inmates serving mandatory drug sentences costs taxpayers almost $97.5 million annually. Though less than previous estimates, Florida's inmate population currently is projected to hit 111,510 by 2015. The state Department of Corrections doesn't know yet if new prisons will be needed.

"Continuing to pour money into a bloated prison system in a time of fiscal austerity is not only unsustainable, it confounds common sense," the Collins Center for Public Policy correctly noted in its recent "Smart Justice" report.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Will the Feds Hit or Miss on Clemens?

Simon Bruty/SI
Is Roger Clemens the newest poster child/victim in the War on Drugs?  Anthony Papa says yes in this engaging post on The Huffington Post.

Yep, the "Rocket" is in more trouble than a pitcher fighting through the 7th inning with no outs and the bases loaded.  He's been indicted for lying to Congress about taking steroids as a professional baseball pitcher.  It's been a smear on America's pastime, to be sure, but fans like me were already disappointed after the doping dramas involving Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Jose Conseco, [insert name of your favorite baseball doper here]...

According to Papa, it isn't about the lying, it's about the drugs, and Clemens is just the next martyr in America's obsession with imprisoning people we're mad at:
Clemens' indictment is, technically, for lying to Congress. But, let's face it, the underlying reason for the government to come after him is their failure to get Clemens to admit he had used steroids, or any other performance enhancing drugs. Now the government is back, ready to take down the future hall of famer - along with the sport of baseball - by pushing their agenda of a zero tolerance policy toward certain people who use certain drugs.
Maybe the Feds will strike out on Clemens, maybe not.  How do you see it playing out?

-- Stowe

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Get Smarter About Criminal Justice in Just 7 Minutes

If you don't have time to read Professor Mark Kleinman's excellent book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, the least you can do is listen to 7 minutes of the good professor's advice, courtesy of ReasonTV.

And to think prison rape is still considered an acceptable punchline...

A new Justice Department study found that one in five male jail inmates is victimized sexually by another inmate or jail staff within 24 hours of being admitted to jail.

One in five. On the first day.

Think about that.

A New Alternative to Incarceration: Babysitting

Just ask any teenager with a penchant for drama:  being grounded is like being in prison.

CBS News has this fun story about some parents who created their own alternative to incarceration:  they required their wayward daughter to provide 30 hours of free babysitting for the community.  The folks even put an ad in the local paper:
Instead of taking away her car or cell phone, Kirstin's father Robert took out an ad in the local paper.

Under his daughter's picture it said, "I'm in big trouble for missing my curfew and my parents are making me provide 30 hours of free babysitting as punishment. My pain is your gain, so call."

Robert Rausch said, "We wanted to get her attention and give her something to think about, and I think we accomplished that."

So far, Kirstin is about halfway through her 30-hour sentence.
The whole advertising bit reminds us of another alternative to prison used frequently in some parts of the world:  public shaming.  Example:  A guy steals mail from a post office, and the judge makes him stand outside the P.O. wearing a sandwich board reading "I stole mail from here."  (True story.)  Anti-overincarceration and sentencing reform advocates tend to be in favor of alternatives to incarceration, but public shaming has gotten some pretty negative reviews.  Here's an interesting article from the New York Times about the backlash in China, where public shaming is still somewhat common.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Job Posting: Speak Ebonics? The DEA is Looking for You!

Drug deals go down in all kinds of languages -- Spanish, English, and, apparently, another language the DEA needs translators for:  Ebonics.

The Smoking Gun shares that the DEA "is seeking to hire linguists fluent in Ebonics to help monitor, translate, and transcribe the secretly recorded conversations of subjects of narcotics investigations, according to federal records."

Now, I suppose we could have an argument about whether Ebonics is really a language (ready, set, debate!), but I find the implications of the DEA's need for translators fascinating.  You mean to tell me that there aren't enough DEA agents who can decipher "Black English" (another name for Ebonics) on their own?  And just how many drug offenders are speaking Ebonics, anyway?  I could speculate that this need for translators is due to the racial demographics of DEA agents vs. drug offenders, but that makes some pretty lousy assumptions (e.g., DEA agents are predominantly white, drug offenders predominantly black, and Ebonics is used solely by one race), and I'm just not gonna go there.

But knowing drug lingo -- in any language -- is a key part of the day job for those involved with the War on Drugs. 
The Office of National Drug Control Policy has this fun and interesting resource with all the "street names" for drugs (probably aimed at parents concerned that their teenage kids have started mentioning smurfs and Scooby snacks on phone calls with their friends).  The DEA has a similar page, but with fewer street names listed.
This has nothing whatever to do with sentencing, of course, except to say that sending lots and lots of people to prison for ridiculous terms probably isn't going to end the War on Drugs.  That War has a cultural and even a linguistic element.  And if there's anything we know about cultures and languages, it's that they're pesky.  They stick around. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

"We Shouldn't Sentence Stereotypes"

That's one of the good lines in this piece by Nutmeg State attorney, Norm Pattis. Pattis's article has a Groundhog's Day feel to it. Nearly every day, it seems, there's a new a story about a judge somewhere speaking out against the harsh sentence he is required to impose for a child porn offense.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Got a Prescription for Those Suicide Pills?

If you're going to try to kill yourself by a pill overdose, don't do it in Florida unless you got the pills with a legal prescription.

TV station Central Florida News 13 reports on a just plain crazy case in which a Florida man named Todd Hannigan swiped 37 of his mother's Vicodin (a/k/a hydrocodone) pills, intending to kill himself.  After six pills, one beer, and a stroll to a public park, he was arrested.  The arrest led to a conviction under Florida's drug trafficking statute, and Hannigan received a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Before we go further, we have to ask:  Are Florida prosecutors seriously so underworked that they have to go after people like Hannigan?  Don't you guys have some murderers or rapists or kingpins Miami Vice-ing in boatloads of cocaine to keep you busy?

In Florida, there is no distinction between drug trafficking and a good, old-fashioned suicide attempt -- it all depends on how many pills you have and how you got them.  Your intent to kill yourself is irrelevant.  This blog post, from a Florida victims' rights group (!!!), does a nice job of summing up Florida's atrocious drug "trafficking" statute.  In Florida, simple possession of a certain amount of drugs counts as trafficking and will give you a big, fat mandatory minimum sentence.  Just something to consider for those thinking of moving to the Sunshine State.

So, the moral of this story, Floridians:  get a prescription for those suicide pills.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How Do You Want Crack Offenders to Come Home?

Why shouldn't changes to a law that has always been unfair only apply to people who haven't even committed their crimes yet?  The 100-to-1 crack-powder cocaine disparity was always flawed, so shouldn't everyone get the benefit of the recent reforms that made it a fairer 18-to-1?

This excellent piece in The Austin Chronicle says yes by highlighting another argument in favor of retroactivity:  our fears about crime rampages by released crack offenders have just not been all that justified.

The USSC, a quasi-governmental board of federal judges appointed to create sentencing guidelines for federal crimes, was the first to make a move to repair the problems created by disparate sentencing. In 2007, after years of calling attention to the problem without movement from Congress, the commission revised the sentencing guidelines to trim time from crack sentences. They couldn't touch the man-mins – only Congress can do that – but the change in sentencing did affect cases that fall above and below the mandatory sentence triggers at five and 10 years. The commission then made its changes retroactive – a move that saw then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey nearly pop a blood vessel when claiming to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in early 2008 that allowing imprisoned crack offenders to petition to have their sentences reduced would clog America's cities with gun-wielding crack addicts hell-bent on revenge. Needless to say, that didn't happen, though the change in sentencing did see the courts reduce sentences for 65% of the more than 24,000 people who applied for a reduction, notes Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Retroactivity is the fair and just thing to do, and it doesn't have to mean public safety takes a hit.  In fact, I think doing right by people makes them more likely to honor the system and not reoffend.  Reducing the crack disparity was partly about increasing a perception that the system is, if not 100% fair, at least fairer.  The people whose perceptions count the most may be the people behind bars -- almost all of which are coming home someday whether or not we give them the benefit of a fairer crack law.

We can let them come home feeling jilted and bitter and forgotten, or we can bring them back to our neighborhoods feeling appreciation for a system that cared enough to make sure they got at least some justice.  That's a system they might be motivated to support, not thwart.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Righteous Reformers and Their "Radical" Agenda

Here come the bullies from Justice Fellowship trying to cram their morals down the throats of ordinary Americans again. Last time, they said sentencing crack addicts to longer prison terms than cocaine users was wrong. Now the "morality police" are back with an even more radical agenda. Get a load of this. They want states to stop the practice of shackling women inmates while they are giving birth. There's more. They also want to prevent inmates from being forcibly raped in prison. These guys just won't quit. Click here to read why these zealots believe prison reform is a "moral necessity."

- Ingersoll

How Much More Can One State Take?

The Gainesville Sun is hammering away on mandatory minimum sentences right now.  This short and sweet editorial quotes FAMM's Deborah Fleischaker and calls the state to count the cost (literally) of its sentencing madness:
Mandatory-minimum sentencing is a legacy of the Florida Legislature's determination to "get tough" on crime. But with the state going into its fourth year of multi-billion dollar revenue shortfalls, lawmakers must ask themselves how much longer taxpayers can afford Florida's brand of lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key justice.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Prison Without Walls

That's the title of an excellent, lengthy, and gripping article in The Atlantic right now.  The article describes, in detail, the use of electronic and GPS monitoring to track and keep prisoners in line, rather than locking them up. One of the many highlights:

Devices such as the ExacuTrack, along with other advances in both the ways we monitor criminals and the ways we punish them for their transgressions, suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might turn the conventional prison system inside out for a substantial number of inmates, doing away with the current, expensive array of guards and cells and fences, in favor of a regimen of close, constant surveillance on the outside and swift, certain punishment for any deviations from an established, legally unobjectionable routine. The potential upside is enormous. Not only might such a system save billions of dollars annually, it could theoretically produce far better outcomes, training convicts to become law-abiders rather than more-ruthless lawbreakers. The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain.

Moreover, such a change would in fact be less radical than it might at first appear. An underappreciated fact of our penitentiary system is that of all Americans “serving time” at any given moment, only a third are actually behind bars. The rest—some 5 million of them—are circulating among the free on conditional supervised release either as parolees, who are freed from prison before their sentences conclude, or as probationers, who walk free in lieu of jail time. These prisoners-on-the-outside have in fact outnumbered the incarcerated for decades. And recent innovations, both technological and procedural, could enable such programs to advance to a stage where they put the traditional model of incarceration to shame.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ain't No Sunshine When You're Gone

"Florida has some of the harshest penalties. The mandatory minimum for (trafficking) over 28 grams of Vicodin or oxycodone is 25 years. In Texas, it's two," said Deborah Fleischaker, state legislative affairs director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  "And that 25 years is the same sentence that Florida has for molestation of a child under the age of 12. So you can compare Florida to other states and it is outsized, and you can compare Florida to how it punishes other crime ... and you end up treating addicts the way you treat child molesters," she added.
That quote -- and some other examples of Florida sentencing laws and those who run afoul of them -- shows why Florida has a big, fat prison overcrowding crisis on its BP-oil-slickened hands right now. This Gainesville Sun article says Florida's prison problem could make the Sunshine State a pretty gloomy place to be a taxpayer:
But as Florida's prison population continues to swell and the state budget continues to shrink, some are asking whether mandatory sentences still are advisable from a standpoint of finances, fairness and effectiveness at deterring crime. ...
The Florida Department of Corrections is housing 5,135 inmates serving mandatory drug sentences, spokeswoman Jo Ellen Rackleff said. DOC reported costs of $20,108 per year to keep an inmate in prison, adding up to almost $103 million to house those serving mandatory drug sentences.
People in Florida still seem to be getting a handle on the size of this (expensive) problem and debating the pros and cons of mandatory minimums.  But if these sentences put the wrong people away for too long and cost the state too much money, is there really anything to debate?  

Who's Afraid of Grandpa?

The Crime Report brought this article to our attention this morning about the rise in the number of elderly prisoners. The increase is caused primarily by mandatory minimum sentencing laws, such as three-strikes-and-you're-out laws. So now taxpayers are plunking out $72,000 per year so that scooter-riding grandpas are prevented from preying upon the public. This story shows yet another way inane sentencing policies are making us poorer but not safer.

(For the record, if I were writing an article about the absurdly high cost of caring for elderly prisoners, I would have found a more sympathetic subject than a guy who was convicted of murdering his wife and her daughter. Geez. Let me guess, AP, you tried to get Charles Manson but he was busy?).


Thursday, August 12, 2010

I See Your Convicted Ex-GOP Congressman and I Raise You One

Stowe, former Congressman Bob Ney (R-OH), the only member of Congress convicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, seems to agree with your proposal to lock up members in order to win support for sentencing and prison reform. The only change he would make is to add federal judges to the plan.

The good stuff starts at 1:42.

- Ingersoll

To Get Reform, Lock Up Lawmakers

What does it take to get a lawmaker to rethink America's sentencing and corrections policies?

Sometimes, time in prison does the trick.

It seems to have done so, according to this article, for Republican and former California Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who is currently serving an 8-year federal prison sentence for accepting millions in bribes from defense contractors, then setting them up for sweet contract deals.  In prison, Cunningham has used his teaching background to help inmates earn GEDs.  He wrote to the San Diego CityBeat, which reported on what prison has taught Cunningham:
Like many minimum-security camps, Cunningham’s facility is adjacent to a high-security facility, which has allowed him to witness firsthand what he describes as a flawed justice system.

“The USA has more prisoners than any other nation, including Russian & China,” he writes. “The US Attorneys win 98% of their cases and if you do not plead in which 80-90% is not true they threaten your wife children etc with prison time.”

Cunningham’s numbers are slightly off. The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2009 statistics show that federal prosecutors won 94.1 percent of cases. In 96 percent of those convictions, the defendant pleaded guilty before trial. The difference doesn’t affect Cunningham’s point.

“Maybe that’s why God put me here to bring about much needed prison reform,” he writes. “Millions of prisoners but 4x that in families are harmed.
Indeed.  Most prisoners aren't able to vote, but that doesn't mean their family members can't -- but candidates may forget this when they're running for election.  Perhaps it takes actually going to prison and being separated from one's own family before one can appreciate just what long sentences and far-away prisons actually mean for families and offenders.

Of course, locking up all members of Congress isn't realistic -- or is it?  Perhaps we should institute a "Take Your Congressman to Prison Week" for all newly-elected members of Congress.  They could go to the federal prison nearest their home districts and live an average prisoner's existence for a week.  For security, they could assume an alias and be randomly assigned a criminal record.  They'd get to sleep in cells, eat prison food, work a prison job, and only see their families at visiting hours.  Perhaps they would come out with some new friends and some new ideas about how a prison system should be run -- and who should end up there in the first place.

I'm only half-joking.  I'd love to see lawmakers experience a lock-up and leave with a new perspective on America's prison problem.

-- Stowe

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Judges: Should They be Elected or Selected?

Sentencing advocates are quick - and correct - to point out that the worst sentencing laws are passed by politicians who think that appearing "tough on crime" is good for purposes of getting re-elected. The answer, many of us believe, is to take politics out of the sentencing process. But how can we remove political calculations in jurisdictions where the judges are elected rather than appointed?

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is leading an effort to eliminate elected judges. She says all judges should be selected on merit, not popularity. Several months ago, the New York Times wrote of O'Connor's effort:

Justice O'Connor said that no other nation elected its judges. “Nobody,” she said emphatically. At international legal conferences, she said, “they’re all amazed” when the discussion of the American system comes up. "They say, 'How can that be?'"
So, in the middle of a hot and slow August in Washington, tell me this: What do the dear readers of SentenceSpeak think about the election of judges? Better to have judges responsive to their constituents? Or better to make decisions free from political backlash?


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To the Irish: Don't Be Like America

Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty
America may have the world's biggest prison population and highest incarceration rate, but we're not the only country with prison problems.  This editorial in the Irish Times shows how even small European nations that are perceived as progressive may have some prison issues to fix.

Ireland's got a tiny prison population (just under 4,500, according to the Irish Penal Reform Trust) in comparison with the U.S., but its system is overcrowded and increasingly filled with low-level drug offenders and other minor offenders, according to this article in the Irish Examiner.  

The Irish Times breaks down the history of how things got this way:

Twenty years ago, Ireland was identified as having the most unstructured and outdated sentencing system in the western world. Shortly afterwards, the Law Reform Commission suggested that non-statutory guidelines be issued to judges to ensure greater consistency. When nothing happened, public pressure for a more penal approach encouraged politicians to pass laws proposing minimum sentences. In their turn, some judges ignored this intrusion into their area of competence and continued to apply their discretion in a liberal manner. Now, the wheel has turned full circle. At District Court level there has been a large increase in the number of prison committals for minor offences, according to the latest annual report from the Irish Prison Service.
International experience has shown that a reliance on minimum sentences for serious crimes and the incarceration of people for minor offences are equally ineffective and very expensive. Rigid regimes that encourage the incarceration of citizens reflect traditional, failed approaches. 
Like, um, the experience of the United States?  Let's see, we have "rigid regimes that encourage the incarceration of citizens" (and non-citizens, actually), and we have a "reliance" -- no, maybe addiction is the better word -- on mandatory minimums, and we incarcerate people for minor offenses.  It all has led to a system that is "ineffectual and very expensive."  Yep, they're talking about us over there on the Emerald Isle.  

It's official:  America is an example to the world -- or at least to Ireland -- of how NOT to run a sentencing system.

It Aint Over Till New Jersey Says It's Over

Thanks to Doug Berman over at Sentencing Law and Policy for highlighting this Trenton Times op-ed calling for major reforms to New Jersey's sentencing system.

Like so many states, New Jersey is finding out the hard way that it sends too many people to prison at too high a cost.  FAMM's recent victory there gave judges a way around New Jersey's mandatory minimum for drug crimes in school zones when the crime meets certain criteria.  But today's op-ed, written by a former New Jersey state prison official named David Shebses, calls for even more widespread and common sense solutions.  Changes to New Jersey law in 1979

took discretion away from the judges by introducing the concept of mandatory minimum sentencing. In effect, the Legislature decided how long an offender would serve for a crime, without regard to the specific aspects of the crime. Judges had no choice but to sentence convicts according to narrow guidelines . . . As the 1980s unfolded, the Legislature decided to apply this sentencing concept to drug-related crimes, so that by 1990, the prison population exploded. It rose more than fivefold, from 5,500 inmates in 1970 to more than 30,000 inmates in 1990, while New Jersey's population had only risen by 6 percent, to 7.73 million. ...

I therefore suggest the following:

1) Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all crimes. The Legislature should provide general ranges of time from which judges could impose more proportionate sentences that match up with the crime and its circumstances. Proportionality in sentencing serves the ends of justice.
Shebses is right, of course -- mandatory minimums send more people to prison for longer periods of time, and overincarceration is the natural result.  It's excellent to hear a former prison official recognize this and call on the state to just be done with the mandatory minimum system already.  Seriously, if 30 years isn't long enough to know that mandatory minimums are only expensive and ineffective, how long will it take?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mississippi Miracle

Set aside 5 minutes and read this amazing story about how Mississippi went from running jails in which prisoners were nearly eaten by bugs to being one of the states blazing the trail for corrections reform. Congrats to the ACLU for their work in forcing much-needed change.  And congrats to leaders in the Magnolia State for making it happen.

This is What Justice Looks Like

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
This is Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signing into law a bill that includes parole eligibility for prisoners serving mandatory minimum drug sentences in Houses of Corrections (not prisons) in the Bay State.  And on the far right is Barb Dougan, FAMM's Massachusetts project director, who helped make it happen.  Note the cheerful look and big smile on her face.  She, like the rest of us FAMM staffers, loves watching justice materialize.

Read all about it in this Boston Globe article.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Success in Massachusetts!

FAMM's Massachusetts project found success today when Governor Deval Patrick signed a new reform bill into law.  The new law allows people who are serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses to seek parole after serving half their sentence.  While the law only applies to people incarcerated in Houses of Correction -- not state prisons -- it is a huge and positive step forward in reducing harsh mandatory drug sentences and creating a fairer and more cost-effective sentencing system in the state.

The Governor's office issued this press release, quoting FAMM Massachusetts Project Director Barbara Dougan:
Barbara J. Dougan, Massachusetts project director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) said, "FAMM and its members are gratified to see Massachusetts take this first step toward meaningful sentencing reform. Over the years the studies have amassed, showing that mandatory minimum sentences do not reduce either drug offenses or drug dependency and addiction. Instead, too often they result in nonviolent or low level offenders being punished with the same lengthy sentences intended for drug kingpins. The Legislature showed courage in its willingness to acknowledge that when laws do not work as intended, change is needed. And today, by signing the bill into law, Governor Patrick continues his strong leadership on this issue. This is part of a nationwide trend, as at least 15 other states have reformed their drug sentencing laws in recent years." 
Read FAMM's press release here.

Stephen Colbert Fans: He Gets It!

This interesting and fun tidbit over at The Huffington Post shows why, in my humble opinion, Stephen Colbert may be the greatest faux-newsman ever:  he knows more about overincarceration than the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for human rights.  Check it out:
In a sometimes jokey interview with [Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, in charge of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor] discussing China's various human rights abuses (including prisoners), Colbert tried to steer the conversation to human rights problems in our own country.

COLBERT: We've actually got more people in prison than China does.

POSNER: Well I'm not sure that's true.

Colbert's assertion is indisputably true. Posner's denial is false. Does the State Department's man in charge of human rights not know the facts?
The HuffPo is right -- America's got 2.3 million people locked up, the highest number of prisoners in any nation in the world.  Colbert's always going on and on about America being number one -- well, on this count, he's right. 

Can I start calling Stephen Colbert a supporter of sentencing reform, then, which is the cure to overincarceration?  It would be nice to see him get into this important topic even more frequently on his show.

Watch the whole interview here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

You Done Good. Now, Do Retroactivity.

The crack reform law continues to get media attention left and right, and favorable news coverage of the new law shows that, from San Jose to Houston to New York City, the changes are viewed as a big step in the right direction.

FAMM President Julie Stewart weighs in with posts at The Huffington Post and Jurist. And she was quoted in this Politico piece.  FAMM's federal legislative director, Jennifer Seltzer Stitt, appears in this good Huffington Post piece.

The favorable response across the nation should encourage members of Congress:  they did the right thing!  They can still do more by making the crack reforms retroactive -- there's no good reason that fair sentences should apply to some people but not to others simply because of when they committed their crimes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lindsay Lohan Does 13 Days and 12 Steps

Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images
In all the hullabaloo over crack reforms passing, I missed this news: my favorite celeb-in-trouble-with-the-law, Lindsay Lohan, is out of jail!

We speculated long and often about how much time LiLo would actually do because of the LA jail's overcrowded conditions, so now we know: she did 13 days and got out on August 2. Now, she'll do 12 steps of rehab, and hopefully will not contribute to recidivism (or relapse) statistics when she's done.

LiLo, I'm with you! You can do it!

-- Stowe

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Crack (News) Overdose

Source:  USAToday
It's official -- President Obama has signed S. 1789, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, into law!  From now on, crack offenders will get a fairer shake from the federal criminal justice system. 

Even if you're sick of hearing about crack cocaine by now, no one else is. 

This AP story in the Washington Post gives all the details on the signing, and the New York Times chimes in here.

Today's Washington Post editorial lauds Congress -- and FAMM -- for the rescaling of the 100-to-1 ratio to a fairer and more sensible 18-to-1.  FAMM certainly can't take all the credit -- so many legislators and organizations were a part of this success -- but it is nice to get some recognition for almost 20 years of work on this issue.

And lest you think the celebrating is happening only above the Mason-Dixon line, here are some stories from some tough-on-crime states in the South, cheering the changes – and even calling for more:
Now, it's on to making S. 1789's reforms retroactive.  A tough battle lies ahead, but perhaps it will get easier as legislators read all the good press from coast to coast on what they've done right so far.  It's fair to say that fixing the crack-powder disparity has been a popular move in the right direction.  There's no good reason not to do the right thing for those who are already in prison.