Friday, July 29, 2011

"Just Shut Up and Watch"

That's the advice given in this gripping article about the recent horrific mass murder in Norway by white, Christian extremist Anders Behring Breivik.  Breivik meticulously planned a bombing of downtown Oslo and a shooting spree that killed 93 Norwegians on July 22.

Breivik is facing a maximum of 21 years in Norwegian prisons (plus optional, additional 5-year terms if he still seems a threat).  Norway's prison facilities are known worldwide for being ... well, an American would call them cushy, even "heavenly," but a European would simply call them humane.  Is 21 years too short, especially in a prison system like Norway's?  Will Wilkinson writes:

I say, yes, it does offend our sense of justice. It offends mine. But I am very wary of my own instinct for retribution, and of yours. ... If we are able to approach the matter rationally, which is hard, I think we will see that a society's main imperative is to guarantee the safety of its members by taking the criminal out of commission and then by punishing wrongdoers to the extent necessary to deter similar future crimes. I think we can be sure that Mr Breivik will not be left in a position to kill again. .... I doubt the severity of Mr Breivik's punishment will have anything at all to do with the future incidence of elaborately plotted massacres.
In general, my reaction to Norway's lenient, rehabilitation-focused justice system is not that the Norwegian sense of retributive justice is underdeveloped and defective, but that America's is. Norway has one of the world's lowest murder rates. America is worst in the developed world. Maybe we could learn something. Perhaps we should wonder why our detention facilities aren't more like Halden. Of course, we couldn't afford it, as we imprison such a disgracefully huge portion of our population, and in often sub-human conditions. ...
All evidence supports that proposition that Norway's criminal justice system is both practically and morally superior to America's. If America's abominably cruel and unjust system delivered results even remotely comparable to Norway's enviable level of civil peace and order, then there might be some reason to take seriously American animadversions against Norway's short sentences and humane prison. But we don't. We're not even close. So Americans should just shut up and watch. It could do us some good to see how a civilised society handles such a horrifying crime.
Lest this be dismissed as groundless, America-hating drivel, let's put things in perspective:
These appalling sentences are the norm in the United States, but there's nothing that convincingly shows that they have caused crime or drug use to drop.  

Our American notions of justice are so out of whack that we are just not qualified to judge a country like Norway as being "too soft" on crime.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

FAMM Supporter's Story in Chicago Tribune!

FAMM supporter Stephanie Nodd is serving 30 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense.  In today's Chicago Tribune, she shares her story and thanks the U.S. Sentencing Commission for making crack guideline changes retroactive.  We've reprinted it in its entirety, because it is so powerful and touching:

Looking back, I know I did something wrong, but I am also sure that I did not need 30 years in prison to learn my lesson. I am due a second chance, and I plan to make the best of it.

I grew up in Mobile, Ala. I became pregnant in ninth grade and dropped out of school to care for my child. I was determined to be the best mother in the world. Unfortunately, as a single woman without a degree, money was always a problem. In 1988, just after my 20th birthday, I met a man named John who promised me cash if I helped him set up his new business. His business was selling crack cocaine. I helped him for a little over a month in return for money I used to pay bills and buy groceries. After about six weeks, I cut off all ties with John and moved myself and my kids to Boston to start a new life.

We were living in Boston when I was indicted on drug charges in Alabama. I returned to take responsibility for my mistake. I prayed I would not have to serve any time because of my clean record and limited involvement. I could not have been more wrong. I was put in jail immediately. My lawyer told me that unless I cooperated against some drug dealers in Florida — people I did not know — I would have to take a chance on a trial.

I could not give the prosecutors any information because I did not know anyone in Florida. Meanwhile, John cooperated against everyone, including me. I was eventually charged as a manager in the drug conspiracy and found guilty at trial. Even though I did not have a criminal record, I was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. The year was 1990. George H.W. Bush was president, and no one knew what email was. I was 23 years old.

I have spent the last two decades behind bars. Whenever new corrections officers ask me what my sentence is and I tell them 30 years, their first question is always the same: "Who did you kill?"

Earlier this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce penalties for crack cocaine crimes. On June 30, the commission voted to apply the new reforms to people serving the long prison sentences required by the old law. Some people, including some members of Congress, are against retroactivity because they think it will give dangerous criminals a break. As someone who has already served 21 years in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent crack offense, I think it's important for the public to get a different perspective.

The truth is that many people are serving sentences that are far longer than I believe is necessary. I have met women whose husbands, after getting caught selling drugs, turned around and cooperated against their wives in exchange for shorter sentences. Some of these women had little or no involvement in the drug offense for which they are serving decades in federal prison.

As difficult as my time in prison has been on me, I know it's been harder on my children. Not only did they lose their mother but I had to split them up between my sisters and my mother, who passed away in 2006. My oldest boys have had trouble with the law, which I know is common for kids with incarcerated parents. My heart breaks that I am not there for them. I have missed more birthdays, Thanksgivings, Christmases and graduations than I care to count.

I have tried to stay positive and make the best of a bad situation. I received my GED, completed college courses and earned other licenses that will allow me to compete for a job when I am finally released.

Thanks to the U.S. Sentencing Commission's vote, I could be released by the end of this year. I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know I am not the same woman who kissed her babies goodbye 21 years ago, but I can't wait to be reunited with my children and to meet my new grandchildren.

Stephanie Nodd is serving in the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution-Medium in Coleman, Fla. Before the U.S. Sentencing Commission's vote last month, her projected release date was Nov. 6, 2016.

Dying in Prison...on Cable TV

If you've got cable TV, tune in to OWN to watch tonight's documentary, called "Serving Life."  It's the story of lifers who are dying at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (better known as Angola) -- and the fellow inmates who care for them, providing hospice treatment and comfort.  Here's a description from The Washington Post:

Even in an alternate world such as Angola, death becomes universal. Anyone who has ever had a loved one tended to by a benevolent hospice worker will recognize the gentility, hard labor and rewards of the hospice way. The men learn to bathe and dress their patients and clean up their foul diapers and sheets. They hold the hands of the dying, stroke their heads, give them a shave, rub lotion on painful limbs.
Ronald Ratliff, who is serving a life sentence under Louisiana’s “three strikes” law, tells the hospice selection committee that he wants to become a hospice worker as a way to show that, after all the wrong he has done, “I do still care for people. [My mother] raised me right.”
Like many a prison documentary, “Serving Life” finds a lot to like in these criminals. What will move one viewer may anger a different sort of viewer, who believes a con is always a con. Even the inmates on the hospice team are kept in the dark about their patients’ criminal history, so as to be free of the tendency to judge one another. Thus, an armed-robbery convict nicknamed Boston is assigned to care for a cranky pedophile with an inoperable brain tumor. Working against factors of age, race and temperament, a friendship is nevertheless formed, and death is faced with newfound dignity.
 Watch the trailer for the show here.

A lasting misunderstanding among many Americans is that life sentences are only for cold-blooded killers -- they're not.  Life sentences apply to people sentenced under mandatory "three strikes" (or even "two strikes") laws and even to people who commit nonviolent drug crimes.  While some crimes certainly may merit a life sentence, mandatory minimum life sentences mean the prosecutor makes that decision instead of an impartial, independent, and fully-informed court.  Mandatory life sentences -- just like every other mandatory sentence -- can be applied to people who aren't scary and don't deserve them.  All questions of humanity and justice aside, mandatory life sentences are also some of the most expensive ones we use, carrying heavy costs of caring for elderly, sick, and (eventually) dying inmates -- even when the caretakers are fellow prisoners.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Hot Arson Mandatory Minimum Debate in PA

Arson can be a violent crime -- but that doesn't mean it should carry a mandatory minimum sentence. And that's not just FAMM talking.  It's also the view of Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary  Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf, who seems well on his way to becoming a champion for mandatory minimum reform.

This Philadelphia Inquirer article details the developments:

A proposed Pennsylvania law meant to deter would-be arsonists has become fodder for a debate over the fairness of the state's criminal-sentencing practices.
The bill seeks to lengthen prison terms for arsonists, in part by establishing mandatory minimum sentences. State Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr. (R., Chester) introduced the measure in March in response to Coatesville's wave of arson fires in 2009.
Ahhhh, now we get it. This is classic mandatory minimum-making:  some crimes happen, people (understandably) get upset, lawmakers respond with a mandatory sentence to deter people from committing the crime (and possibly win some votes).

The problem with this approach:  25 years of it shows that mandatory minimums consistently do not stop crime (look at the War on Drugs) and contribute to expensive, overcrowded prison systems -- systems just like the one Pennsylvania has now:
But the mandatory-minimum provision has drawn the opposition of the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman [Greenleaf], who argues that such rules have caused prison overcrowding, led to injustices, and failed to deter crime. ...

"There's always different factors that come into play [when someone commits a crime], and injustices invariably happen when we tell a judge that he has to impose a particular sentence," [Greenleaf] said in an interview.
Greenleaf pointed to the "little fish" that get caught up in overly harsh sentences because of them.
He argued that the bill could end up leading to a teen who set a brush fire as a prank getting a 10-year prison sentence.
Though he conceded that opposing mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses such as drug use is more popular than opposing them for violent crimes, Greenleaf vowed the bill would not come up for a vote in its current form.
And he's getting ready to introduce his own legislation that would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders when "a substantial manifest injustice would occur" with the sentence, he said.
Kudos to Greenleaf for taking this stand.  It's the correct one.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Out-of-control Fraud Guidelines

That's the headline to this National Law Journal article by FAMM Vice President Mary Price and defense attorney James Felman.

Did you know that federal drug sentences aren't the only ones that are out of control to the point of absurdity?  In the federal system, the type and amount of drugs determines the sentence.  The person's intent, circumstances, role in a drug conspiracy, or drug dependency don't matter.  Fraud crime guidelines are similar -- the amount of money lost sets the sentence, and it doesn't matter if the defendant wasn't in charge, didn't receive much benefit from the crime, or was only involved in the offense for a short time.

Sentences for economic crimes have been increasing over the years, sending nonviolent people to prison for decades or even life -- at taxpayer expense.  Is it worth it?  Is it fair?  Here's one example:

A little more than a year ago, Sholom Rubashkin, a 51-year-old father of 10 with deep roots in his Iowa community and no prior criminal record, was sentenced to serve 27 years in prison following his conviction on financial fraud charges. Remarkably, that sentence looks lenient compared to the sentence prosecutors originally urged: life without parole. The attention garnered by the U.S. Department of Justice's initial sentencing position, as evidenced by a letter to the sentencing judge from six former U.S. attorneys general (joined by former senior Justice Department officials and former judges), has waned during the past year. But Rubashkin's sentence should not be quickly forgotten because it stands as a stark example of the disproportionate and draconian punishments that result from the broken fraud sentencing guidelines.
Not long ago, first-time perpetrators of economic crimes frequently received sentences of probation with special conditions for compensating their victims. Lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent financially motivated offenders were correctly deemed unnecessary. The purposes of sentencing could be accomplished without removing them from society for extended periods of time. These offenders suffer a multitude of unique collateral consequences, including the all-but-certain end to their careers, and the social stigma of a steep and public fall from grace.*
What do you think are appropriate punishments for people committing economic crimes?  Leave your answer in a comment.

* Reprinted with permission from the July 26, issue of the National Law Journal © 2011 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Perspective on Prison

I've been following a story about Venezuelan prison conditions -- and an ongoing riot/stand-off with guards -- for several weeks now.

Why would I read such a depressing story?  I suppose it's because it broadens my perspective.

Here's the latest on the El Rodeo jail complex, from The Economist:

ON JUNE 12th, a visiting day at the El Rodeo jail complex outside Caracas turned into a shoot-out between gangs. In the firefight 27 people reportedly died, and over 70 were injured. Three more were killed when National Guard troops retook the jail’s Rodeo I unit, where they found assault rifles, hand grenades, a submachine-gun and 5,000 rounds of ammunition. Facing such weaponry, the government decided that a frontal assault on the building in Rodeo II where the remaining 1,000 or so inmates were holed up would be too dangerous. Instead, it forced them out with a barrage of tear gas and a siege. After subsisting for nearly a month on little more than rainwater and sweets, most of the inmates surrendered on July 13th, although some escaped and others died trying.
The standoff at El Rodeo has drawn attention to the conditions of Venezuela’s prisons, which Hugo Chávez, the president, has famously called “the gateway to the fifth circle of hell”. When he was inaugurated in 1999—five years after the end of his own jail stint for leading an attempted coup—22,000 inmates were crammed into prisons built for 17,000. Mr Chávez promised a “humanisation” programme.
Inmates in California's prison system ended their hunger strike today, a protest they initiated in response to prolonged solitary confinement (22.5 hours a day) and the state's notoriously overcrowded (and now unconstitutional) conditions.

What does this have to do with sentencing?

I often see legislators and the public call for harsher and longer prison sentences, and I wonder if these advocates are fully aware of what incarceration really means.  In the middle of a historic heat wave, people still complain about giving American prisoners air conditioning and think conditions are too cushy.  But most of the complainers have never been to prison.

Prison isn't just about separation from one's family.  It's not just isolation and punishment.  It's not just losing irreplaceable years of one's life.  (All of that, by the way, should be enough, in terms of retribution.)  I'm not sure how many American prisons resemble the ones I've mentioned in Venezuela and California, but the experience of being incarcerated is something more than just time and bars and separation.  Even without violence, overcrowded conditions, solitary confinement, gangs, and riots, spending time in prison must carry a unique psychological and emotional impact.

Consider this:  many of the most ardent advocates for prison reform are the people who have spent time there.  The people who understand prison best are the people who have been there -- which, almost by definition, excludes the people in power who decide who goes to prison and for how long.

We are in such a rush to use prisons, fill the ones we have, build new ones -- and then get upset when people come out and go back in.  Prisons are necessary.  Many people need them; some even benefit from them.  But we should use prisons with caution -- not just because they're expensive and often unnecessary, but also because we still don't fully understand their impact on prisoners and on society.

-- Stowe

Thursday, July 21, 2011

DOJ Policy Shift on Crack Means Better Justice

Last year, FAMM and its supporters worked hard to get Congress to pass the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA).  The FSA changed the mandatory minimum sentences for federal crack cocaine crimes.  But it wasn’t (and still isn’t) a perfect law.  It isn’t retroactive, so it doesn’t benefit anyone sentenced before August 3, 2010 – the day the FSA became law.

Pay attention to that date, because it also controls the fates of about 4,000 federal crack offenders nationwide sentenced after the FSA became law.

Since the FSA’s passage, prosecutors around the country have been arguing (with some success) that the FSA does not apply to anyone who committed their crack offense before August 3, 2010, but is sentenced after that date.  It all goes back to an old law called the savings statute, which has been interpreted to mean that it’s the date the crime was committed that decides what sentencing law courts must apply.  So, for example, a federal crack offender who committed their crime on August 2, 2010 – before the FSA became law – would face the old mandatory minimums … even if he was sentenced after August 3, 2010.

But on July 15, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice – after considerable urging by FAMM and other members of the “Crack the Disparity” coalition – changed its mind about this interpretation of the FSA.  In a memo, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors should no longer ask courts to apply the old mandatory minimums to people who committed crack crimes before August 3, 2010 but were sentenced after that date.  This makes up to 4,000 federal crack offenders potentially eligible for a change in their sentences, if they were facing a mandatory minimum.

ATTENTION:  If you or a loved one thinks you may benefit from the DOJ’s policy change on the FSA, you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible.  FAMM can’t provide you with legal help or tell you whether you might be eligible.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Other Mandatory Minimums

In many states, committing a sex offense doesn't just get you a mandatory minimum sentence, it also gets you a mandatory minimum period of registering as a sex offender (which has all kinds of onerous burdens, such as restrictions on where you can live, work, etc.).  New Jersey's Megan's Law requires registering as a sex offender for life if certain kinds of criminal sexual conduct is involved.

This piece from New Jersey's Star-Ledger gives an example of some of the conduct that apparently can trigger this life-long and life-altering mandatory sex offender registration:  playing a prank.  
Call it bullying or call it horseplay. Either way, a state appellate court panel says roughhousing with a sexual connotation by a pair of 14-year-old Somerset County boys was a crime that requires them to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
In a decision handed down Monday, the three-judge panel acknowledged the severity of its decision, but said it was bound to uphold the law.
"We are keenly aware that our decision may have profound lifelong ramifications for these two boys as well as others similarly situated," Judge Jose Fuentes wrote.
One of the boys, whose case went to trial, said he had sat on the faces of a pair of 12-year-old schoolmates with his bare buttocks in November 2008 "cause I thought it was funny and I was trying to get my friends to laugh," he told a family court judge.
But an act is considered criminal sexual contact if it is done for sexual gratification or to degrade or humiliate the victim, and punishable by lifetime registration — even for juveniles — under Megan’s Law, which requires a person convicted of a sex crime against a child to notify police of changes of address or employment.
The mandatory, lifelong sex offender registration isn't up to the judges -- it can only be changed by the New Jersey legislature.

The article has an interesting poll sidebar, asking readers to vote on whether this punishment (yes, that's their word choice) of lifelong registration fits this crime.

As of 5 p.m. EST on July 20, a whopping 76% said this punishment didn't fit.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Drug Courts: All You Could Ever Want to Know

Today the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on drug courts, which may get some more media attention because actor Martin Sheen (famous as ex-West Wing president Josiah Bartlett and real-life father of Charlie Sheen) was on hand to testify.  He's a big supporter of this alternative to incarceration, which now exists in some form in all 50 states.  

Along with the hearing, the Center for Court Innovation just released this interesting study on drug courts and their effectiveness.  Among other things, the report finds that drug courts reduce drug relapses and crime and benefit virtually any type of offender. 

Not everyone is a fan of drug courts, but I do think it's interesting to compare them with mandatory, one-size-fits-all prison sentences -- which haven't been proven to reduce drug use or crime, despite 25 years of effort.

-- Stowe

Friday, July 15, 2011

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend

Should a man who goes on a killing spree be spared from punishment because a brain tumor altered his brain chemistry and made him irrationally violent?  Should a child molester be spared prison time because a tumor blocked the part of the brain that chooses socially acceptable sex with adults over sex with children?  How much of our free will is actually driven by our biology?  And if biology is the driver behind crime, when is punishment okay?  Should our criminal justice system allow a "My brain tumor made me do it" defense?

Those are just a few of the puzzling questions and (true) stories presented in this lengthy but perturbing article from The Atlantic, entitled "The Brain on Trial."

A teaser:
Was it his fault, or his biology’s fault?
I submit that this is the wrong question to be asking. The choices we make are inseparably yoked to our neural circuitry, and therefore we have no meaningful way to tease the two apart. The more we learn, the more the seemingly simple concept of blameworthiness becomes complicated, and the more the foundations of our legal system are strained.
If I seem to be heading in an uncomfortable direction—toward letting criminals off the hook—please read on, because I’m going to show the logic of a new argument, piece by piece. The upshot is that we can build a legal system more deeply informed by science, in which we will continue to take criminals off the streets, but we will customize sentencing, leverage new opportunities for rehabilitation, and structure better incentives for good behavior. Discoveries in neuroscience suggest a new way forward for law and order—one that will lead to a more cost-effective, humane, and flexible system than the one we have today. When modern brain science is laid out clearly, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without taking what we’ve learned into account.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Bonne DiToro
Defenders of today's ridiculous criminal sentencing laws often respond the same way when shown an individual who received a sentence far in excess of their crime:  "Oh, there will always be exceptions," they say.

There's a problem with this thinking. Over the past 20 years, FAMM has collected so many "exceptions" that they're starting to seem, well, less exceptional, and more common than defenders of the status quo might care to admit. Today, we remind you of the case of Massachusetts prisoner Bonnie DiToro, who is serving a 15-year mandatory minimum. Her full story is here.

Bonnie is currently scheduled to be released two years from this Saturday -- July 16, 2013. FAMM’s Massachusetts Project is working hard to get a bill passed that would allow drug offenders serving mandatory minimums to be eligible for parole at an earlier date. That would bring Bonnie home sooner. But either way, she has already served more than a decade in prison, and it's difficult to believe that anyone in the Bay State is safer as a result.

Conservatives vs. Liberals -- or not?

This fun piece in USA Today features a conversation between conservative columnist Cal Thomas and liberal Democrat strategist Bob Beckel.  They talk sentencing policy, prison conditions, alternatives to incarceration, drug treatment, faith-based restorative justice, and restitution.

So...does it end in a brawl, filled with bitter disagreement?

Here's how it ends, which may surprise you:

Bob:  ... So we have found common ground on (1) eliminating mandatory sentences; (2) removing some non-violent inmates from the prison population; (3) more drug treatment; (4) enhanced job-training programs; and (5) where possible, following the example of the Prison Fellowship.
Cal: I like it. Prison reform is one of the many areas in which we all have the same goals, and with a little back-and-forth, we really can change the system for the better. That, my friend, is the American way.
In the papers and in politics, the gap between liberal and conservative is slowly shrinking when it comes to sentencing reform.  FAMM has said all along that sentencing reform isn't a conservative or liberal issue, but an issue that all parties can agree on:  mandatory prison sentences cost too much and don't make us safer.  That's the message we've been sending to lawmakers of all parties, all over the country, for years.

And people on both sides of the aisle are starting to agree with us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

$193 Billion

That, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, was the economic impact of drugs on U.S. society in 2007.  It's a lot of money.

Each year, ONDCP releases a National Drug Control Strategy -- and now you can read 2011's right here.  The Strategy is the White House's official statement on its approach to stopping drug abuse and trafficking.

One deficiency we must note:  while the Strategy does call for more alternatives to incarceration for drug offenders, it does not call for the abolition of mandatory  minimum drug sentencing laws.  It lauds the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 -- which FAMM fought hard for, and which repealed a mandatory minimum for the first time since the Nixon Administration -- but it does not go further.

This is puzzling, because our 25 years of experience with drug mandatory minimums have shown us that they utterly fail to stop drug abuse or trafficking.  While drug usage rates have dropped, there's no clear data showing that mandatory minimums were the cause.  Even with that drop, America is still the world's top drug consumer, which our southern neighbor, Mexico, can verify all too well in its losing battle against drug cartels.

Our mandatory minimum drug sentences are draconian and cost taxpayers a fortune ($28,000 per prisoner, per year).  They've led to a federal prison system that is stuffed to almost 40% over its capacity, which doesn't make prisoners or their guards any safer.  And mandatory minimums sap judges of the flexibility to distinguish low-level offenders who really need treatment or community supervision from unrepentant or violent kingpins.  Mandatory sentences are one-size-fits-all.

In short, mandatory minimum sentences are part and parcel of America's drug control strategy -- and they're a part of the strategy that costs more than they're worth.

Shouldn't fixing a broken drug sentencing system be part of any reasonable National Drug Control Strategy?



Monday, July 11, 2011

Oregon taxpayers will spend $1.3 billion on prisons -- and it won't be enough

That's the headline of this thoroughly readable piece in The Oregonian, detailing that state's corrections budget woes in the Great Recession.

The article does a nice job showing the ripple effects of budget cuts:  it's not just crowded prisons, but also less training for correctional officers, fewer reentry preparation programs, less mental health treatment, and a host of other little cuts that can make a big difference.  Of course, long mandatory prison sentences are one of the major culprits behind the problem -- but Oregon seems in no hurry to fix them:

Legislators tweaked some sentencing laws to forestall the arrival of additional inmates. They changed provisions of Measure 73 to put repeat drunken drivers in county jails instead of prison. They once again shortened prison sentences for those who violate parole and probation conditions.
But more significant reforms went nowhere, such as once again suspending Measure 57 and trimming certain Measure 11 [mandatory minimum] sentences. A plan to shift more convicts into less-costly local jails also failed.

Shannon Wight, associate director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said the state is spending ever more on prison cells while cutting programs that can prevent crime. She cited reinstatement of "addiction-driven crimes" of Measure 57, which sets mandatory minimum sentences for some repeat property offenders.

"We're not going to get at what's causing those people to commit crimes," Wight said.
If you're interested in sentencing reform in Oregon, start with the Partnership for Safety and Justice, which has done years of good work raising awareness about the need to scale back or eliminate mandatory sentencing laws and use smarter -- and cheaper -- alternatives.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Got Questions? We've Got Answers...

If you've got questions about the new retroactive crack sentencing guideline amendment, look no further:  click here to read our answers to frequently asked questions about what the U.S. Sentencing Commission did, who the amendment might benefit, and how federal crack offenders can seek fairer sentences.

It's baaaaa-aaack! Another Second Chance...

This local news source is covering a new bill that FAMM is supporting:  the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, S. 1231.

Sound familiar?  That's because S. 1231 aims to resurrect the Second Chance Act, which became a law in 2008 but expired in 2010.  The Second Chance Act gave Congress the go-ahead to spend millions on reentry programs across the country.  S. 1231 would "reauthorize" the Second Chance Act, providing the authorization (but not the funds) to fund more reentry programs, till 2016.  If it passes, S. 1231, would also revive the Elderly and Family Reunification for Certain Nonviolent Offenders Pilot Program, which allows federal prisoners to move select elderly offenders from cells to their homes.  S. 1231 lowers the age limit needed to qualify for the program from 65 to 60.

Perhaps most importantly, S. 1231 would allow federal prisoners to earn an extra 60 days of "good credit time" off of their sentences each year, if they complete certain reentry preparation programs.

What's notable:  S. 1231 has bipartisan support, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH).  Reentry is one area where legislators apparently agree that more federal money (and incentives for prisoners) is needed.

Read up on the S. 1231 here.  It's not a law yet, but we'll be monitoring its progress at

Ohio Dumps the Disparity

The U.S. Sentencing Commission isn't alone in working for crack cocaine sentencing reforms.  While it was voting in favor of making crack sentencing guideline changes retroactive for federal prisoners last week, the state of Ohio was busy  passing its own crack cocaine reform:  eliminating any disparity in the Buckeye State's treatment of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

This Plain Dealer article gives the skinny on Ohio's reform:

For more than a decade, Ohio lawmakers, faced with political pressure, failed to correct one of the most glaring inequalities in the criminal-justice system: penalties for crack versus those for powder cocaine.
In the late 1980s and early-1990s, when the country was embroiled in the war on drugs, when labels like "kingpin" and "drug czar" became household terms, Ohio -- like the federal government and other states -- got tough by taking down crack dealers.
The result was penalties for possession of and trafficking in crack cocaine that were five to 10 times higher than for using and selling the same quantities of powder cocaine. The prisons swelled with young black drug dealers. The disparity was evident. ...
That's all about to change. Gov. John Kasich last week signed House Bill 86, a multifaceted sentencing-reform law that among other things will even out the penalties for crack and powder cocaine.
Just before signing the bill, the Republican governor noted that past lawmakers and governors were scared by political pressure to address aspects of the law that will probably see thousands of state inmates released early and the disparity related to cocaine penalties.
Under the new law, the penalty for higher quantities of powder cocaine will be ratcheted up to match the tougher penalties for equal amounts of crack cocaine. On the other end, the penalty for lower to medium amounts of crack will be decreased to match the punishment for the same amounts of powder. ...
Ohio now becomes the 38th state to change its laws to address the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, said Mike Lawlor, a board member for the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
There's still a disparity between powder and cocaine offenses at the federal level:  last year's Fair Sentencing Act reduced it from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.  That was a huge victory, but Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) wants Congress to finish what it started and move the 18-to-1 ratio down to 1-to-1.  He introduced H.R. 2242 to accomplish that goal, and FAMM is supporting the bill.  It's not a law yet, but you can read all about it and track its progress here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Know Your Conservative Sentencing Reformer

"Conservative sentencing reformer" was once an oxymoron, but no longer.

In this lengthy and very interesting piece from The Daily Beast, Eve Conant surveys the entire lot of major conservative voices who are now speaking up for cutting sentences, prison populations, and corrections budgets -- and not just to save cold, hard cash. Many conservatives have jumped onto sentencing reforms because of their faith or because of personal experience with seeing the cruelty and folly of our "lock 'em up and throw away the key" culture.  My favorite part of the article:

Many conservatives balk at the notion that fixing prisons is all about the bottom line. “This is a moral issue,” says Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, which ministers to prisoners using God, as explained on its website, “to overcome evil with good.” He describes watching conservatives like Norquist and Keene testify against mandatory minimums or for last year’s Fair Sentencing Act, which corrected harsh disparities in penalties between crack and powder cocaine, as “electrifying.” “It emboldened Republicans who were concerned about speaking out that they wouldn’t be alone.”
Keeping non-violent offenders out of prisons serves of other conservative interests: keeping families together (the more than 2 million Americans are currently in prison don’t pay child support or income tax payments, and mothers are increasingly incarcerated), getting more assets back to victims (prisoners pay almost nothing compared to those on probation), and keeping the streets safe by preventing non-violent offenders from hardening into real criminals while in prison. There are the Christian principles of forgiveness and redemption, and—of course—limiting government overreach (there are more than 4,000 federal criminal laws currently on the books) and what Norquist calls “creeping centralization.” Marc Levin, of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, likes to say “there are 11 felonies in Texas just related to oysters. A woman in Texas was arrested for an overdue library book. We like arresting people but it’s getting kind of expensive.” ...
For several in the [Right on Crime] group, it’s personal. Keene, the longtime chairman of the American Conservative Union and recently minted president of the NRA, has a son serving 10 years for a road rage incident. Nolan was a “tough on crime” California state legislator who consistently voted for stronger prison sentences until he found himself serving time for an improper campaign contribution. “I had supported laws to get drug kingpins off the streets, but in prison I was surrounded by only small fries. It was ridiculous.” Another member of their group, conservative fundraising pioneer Richard Viguerie, has a friend with a heroin and bank-robbing habit. His friend deserves time, he explains, just perhaps not twice the sentence simply because he crossed a county line.
Read the whole thing.  It's an encouraging sign of the times.


Sentencing Nerd Red Alert!

Still trying to get your head around the latest crack cocaine sentencing reform from the U.S. Sentencing Commission?  For true sentencing nerds, here's a site that will make you croon with delightful glee:  all the Commission's reports, testimony, amendments, research, and data on crack -- all in one place!

FAMM will have fully up-to-date answers to frequently asked questions about the new retroactive crack guideline amendment up on our website later today.  Till then, enjoy the Commission's compilation.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In Case You Missed It...

For those of you who spent this Fourth of July weekend partying like it was 1776, here's what you might have missed:

  • This AP article lauds the U.S. Sentencing Commission's unanimous vote in favor of crack guideline retroactivity and notes that 1 in 17 federal inmates will be eligible for sentence reductions (!!!);
  • This article from The Christian Science Monitor features FAMM supporter Stephanie Nodd and her brother; and
  • Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a law that will give judges the discretion to send some low-level, nonviolent offenders to halfway houses or drug treatment rather than into Ohio's overcrowded prisons.
How fitting for an Independence Day weekend!  

Friday, July 1, 2011

Watch the Crack Retroactivity Vote!

Watch the U.S. Sentencing Commission's vote on crack retroactivity yesterday -- there are some exciting, moving speeches from the Commissioners.

Crack Guideline Changes are Retroactive!!!

Yesterday was a huge victory for FAMM, for its supporters, and for justice:  the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously in favor of making its most recent crack guideline changes retroactive!  The changes could benefit about 12,000 federal prisoners serving crack cocaine sentences.  The average sentence reduction would be about 37 months.

Read FAMM's press release on this momentous victory here. In the coming days, we'll have answers to frequently asked questions about the retroactive amendments on our website,

We owe a huge thanks to our supporters -- thousands of you signed petitions and sent letters to the Commission in favor of retroactivity.  Over a dozen FAMM supporters were present at the vote yesterday.  You made a difference!  The Commission took a strong stand for justice, saying that applying crack sentencing guideline changes to people who are already in prison is the right thing to do.  We agree, and we applaud the Commission's work.

Family members and prisoners who want to know if they may benefit from the retroactive guidelines should call the Federal Public Defender's office in the district where you were convicted.  Tell them that you are a federal crack offender, and ask them to look at your presentence report and let you know if you might benefit from the retroactive guidelines.  A list of contact info for the Federal Public Defenders is available online here.


  • the retroactive guideline changes only benefit people convicted in federal courts for a drug offense that involved crack cocaine -- state offenders and people whose cases didn't involve crack can't benefit;
  • the changes do not make the FSA's changes to crack mandatory minimum sentences retroactive -- only Congress can do that;
  • sentence reductions are not automatic -- you have to go back to court, file a motion under 18 U.S.C. section 3582(c)(2), and ask for a sentence reduction -- talk to a lawyer about how to do this;
  • no one is guaranteed a reduction -- the judge will review the case, and whether you get a reduction is entirely up to him/her; 
  • courts cannot start granting sentence reductions until after November 1, 2011; and
  • FAMM cannot tell you if you may benefit.  We can't give you legal advice, recalculate your sentence, or help you file a motion. To get that kind of help, contact the Federal Public Defenders!