Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I work at FAMM

My name is Leigh Bailey and I’m the Development Director here at FAMM. I’m in charge of making sure that we get the money we need to do our work. It can be hard to stay inspired to ask people and organizations for money day after day, especially in these tough economic times. Yesterday we even asked the 20,000 federal prisoners who we regularly update on laws and policies that affect them for money!

As soon as our request went out to the prisoners, we started getting messages back – so many wonderful messages – and these are why I work at FAMM. Because the people that we serve are telling us first-hand what FAMM’s work means to them and that they, many of whom have very little, will make a donation to support our work.

Here are just three of these amazing messages:

I want to thank you for all that you have done and yet to do I make 5 buck a month in here and they pay me on the tenth of every month this month I will be sending you that 5 bucks because I feel you deserve it your drive is amazing and I love you from the bottom of my soul it’s through you that I keep my faith and its through you that I will return home to my family and loved one thank you again and I know it’s not much but I will send it on the tenth .......:)

Julie count on a donation on my behalf. It won’t be much but I will try to do what I can. I thank u for all your effort and fight. There are many men and women in the prison system that do not have anybody to fight for them. So I thank you. Keep up the good work and God bless you.

Thank you so much, you are so right, we as prisoners can afford one dollar to fund the fight for our freedom. On dollar a month would be 20k per month and one less honey bun or two less sodas for us prisoners, we can make this sacrifice. Share that with the subscribers. Freedom comes at a cost and it is time we shoulder our part of this cost. God bless your efforts
And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask you to help FAMM continue our work. Please make a donation today. You can click here to donate on-line or send checks by snail mail to:

1612 K Street NW – Suite 700
Washington, DC 20009

For the rest of this month, all donations we receive will be matched 1:1 by one of our donors, so please give as generously as you can.

Thank you!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving from FAMM!

This year, FAMM has a lot that it is grateful for.

First, there's you -- our members, donors, and supporters.  You make our work possible.  You keep our doors open.  You keep us fired up about sentencing reform.  Your calls, questions, and comments keep us excited to come to work every day.  Thank you!

Second, there are the reforms we've won together in 2011.  We saw enormous progress in making federal crack cocaine sentences fairer.  This year, 3,000 people will benefit from the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  Another 12,000 are eligible for shorter sentences under the new, retroactive crack guidelines that went into effect this month.  But don't worry -- we haven't forgotten the thousands of others who get different kinds of mandatory sentences each year.

Which is why, as soon as the turkey's in the Tupperware and the gravy's in the fridge, we'll be back here in the office, working for sentences that fit and justice that works.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your families, wherever you may be on this holiday!  And -- thank you!

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend

Over at Main Justice today, FAMM's Mary Price raises some objections to a recent speech from the Department of Justice, in which it blamed federal judges for increased sentencing disparities (including racial disparities) across the country since the U.S. Supreme Court made the federal sentencing guidelines advisory in 2005.

It's entitled "It's not the judges," and here it is, your good and mad reading for the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.  Reminder:  FAMM's offices will be closed until Monday, November 28.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Obama Pardons 5, Commutes ... A FAMM Member!

Monday evening, President Obama broke out of his three year-long impasse and used his pardon power to issue the first commutation of sentence in his presidency.  He granted it to Eugenia Jennings, a FAMM member serving a 22-year sentence for a crack cocaine offense that involved (prepare yourself) a puny 13.9 grams of the drug.  Her sentence was so long because she qualified as a "career offender," due to prior convictions for drug and addiction-related offenses.

She will go home on December 21, after serving a decade in prison.

Read FAMM's press release here, which includes the details of Eugenia's story.  TalkLeft also has a post about her, and Politico has this piece, quoting FAMM President Julie Stewart.

Note that we have changed our Clemency Counter accordingly.  But, my, one really is the loneliest number...

Jennings's outrageous sentence and her subsequent rehabilitation show how worthy she is of clemency.  This Thanksgiving, I am particularly grateful that she will be going home seven and a half years early.  I commend President Obama for taking this first step.  Now, it's time to take more.

-- Stowe

Monday, November 21, 2011

Former MD Governor to Obama: Time to Pardon!

An excellent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun today from former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich calls on President Obama to pardon more than just turkeys this Thanksgiving week:  the President should pardon and commute the sentences of some humans, too.

Here it is, in full:

Ehrlich: Obama neglects his duty on pardons
Former Gov. Ehrlich says President Obama has failed in an important responsibility

This Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama will follow a long-standing presidential tradition of pardoning a pair of turkeys. Unfortunately, he has largely neglected another presidential tradition: pardoning human beings.

Our Founding Fathers entrusted the president with an extraordinary power — the ability to grant clemency in the form of pardons (which restore civil rights) and commutations (which reduce unjust or excessive sentences) to federal offenders. In almost every state, the governor is given the power to pardon or commute the sentences of those who have broken state laws. It is a highly respected responsibility and duty of the office. In effect, it allows a duly elected executive to balance the scales of justice, when appropriate.

When I became the 60th governor of Maryland in 2003, I considered the pardon power an essential part of my job. I also saw it as a way to do justice. My Democratic predecessors had neglected the power, and I vowed not to follow their examples. In short time, our Office of Legal Counsel established a monthly day and time to review pardon and commutation requests. The team investigated and interviewed applicants and contacted victims. Together, we reviewed all variety of cases wherein there existed good reason to provide sentencing relief. Sometimes, there were serious questions as to the guilt of the defendant. In others, we re-evaluated the nature and seriousness of the crime in light of the inmate's administrative adjustment record. This rigorous but balanced system gave applicants the serious attention and thorough consideration both they and our citizens deserve.

This process also ensured I could represent to all Marylanders that our administration had fulfilled an important campaign pledge on a difficult issue. Our record of 249 pardons and commutations was met with neither wild cheering nor moral outrage. (I also rejected more than 200 clemency requests.) Governors are rarely thanked, but it was enormously gratifying to hear from those who received (and earned) clemency from me. Many shared their gratitude for restored rights, restored employability and restored years with their families. This sense of restoration drives the process and offsets the understandable resistance so many executives manifest toward it. Indeed, no man made process is perfect — and with this understanding comes the realization that mistakes can be made.

But that risk should not stop executives — including the president — from using this unique power. There are too many positive considerations in favor of clemency to neglect it. In some cases, federal mandatory sentences have grown too harsh. Convictions keep people out of jobs. Our justice system is imperfect; prosecutors and police make mistakes. Prisoners and ex-offenders can and do turn their lives around; many deserve a clean slate. The pardon power is the remedy when the justice system misfires — but it only works if executives are willing to use it.

To date, President Obama has granted only 17 pardons and no commutations. Thousands of federal prisoners and ex-offenders request relief every year. By sheer numbers, it seems impossible that no applicants have merited a commutation, especially when more than 75,000 federal prisoners are serving extended mandatory minimum sentences, mostly for drug offenses.

I urge President Obama to fulfill his constitutional duty and utilize his pardon power. On rare occasions, the power has been misused and abused; he does not have to repeat those (mostly political) mistakes. Historically, presidents have wielded the pardon power generously and appropriately, granting hundreds and even thousands of requests, with scandals few and far between. Most recipients are everyday, unknown people who desperately need a fresh start.

The presidential pardon power was intended for more than just turkeys. Using it wisely and regularly does justice, changes lives and fulfills a constitutional duty — and it might even enhance the president's sense of personal satisfaction in the world's most demanding job.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was the governor of Maryland from 2003-2007 and is now a partner at King & Spalding

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lobbyist and the Crack Dealer

That's the title of this moving op-ed from The Daily Caller, and it features two of FAMM's own:  staff member Kevin Ring and profiled member Stephanie Nodd.

Those who don't know much about Kevin or Stephanie's cases and backgrounds will find their "odd couple" story moving and inspiring.  It shows how incarceration crosses color, gender, and class lines; it can impact people who've walked the halls of Congress and those who've sold drugs to survive.  It is reprinted below in its entirety, and we especially hope it encourages people who are facing prison for the first time and are worried or afraid.  You are not alone.

The Lobbyist and the Crack Dealer
By Kevin Ring

When the second jury to hear my case found me guilty of committing five felonies related to my lobbying activities under Jack Abramoff, I was in a daze for a while. My biggest concern was what impact it would have on my two young daughters. I remained convinced of my innocence and knew I would appeal the verdict, but the prospect of serving time in prison became very real. Most of my friends offered sincere words of encouragement, but I began to realize that they couldn’t know exactly what I was feeling. The idea of going to prison seems like one of those things in life that you cannot truly get your head around until you are forced by circumstance to do so.

My friend Stephanie was more helpful. She reminded me that through my two trials my focus had been on the well-being of my girls and that same focus was what should guide me as I faced an admittedly frightening future. A mother of four children of her own, Stephanie said that any separation would be hardest on the kids and so to prepare myself — and them — for how best to cope. In these and other ways, she continually reminded me (without saying so directly) not to get bogged down in self-pity, which would help no one, but to confront the situation head-on.

Her practical advice was not devoid of compassion. Stephanie, like other friends, told me she would do everything she could to ensure my girls had the love and support they needed. She asked me what sizes they were — because she loved to shop and wanted to make sure that my girls had a couple of nice dresses to wear for special occasions while I wasn’t around.

This story might seem unremarkable except for one fact: I have never “met” Stephanie. She was sharing these words of advice and encouragement over email from Coleman Federal Prison in Florida. Stephanie has been in prison since 1990, serving a 30-year sentence for conspiring to distribute crack cocaine around Mobile, Alabama.

I came across Stephanie’s case while working for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and reached out to her because I simply couldn’t believe there wasn’t more to the story. Stephanie was barely 20 years old when she met a man who promised to help her make ends meet for her young children if she helped him identify business contacts in the Mobile, Alabama area. His business was selling crack cocaine and he was new to the area. Stephanie was a local.

Stephanie made a terrible mistake borne out of poor judgment and need, not greed. She helped the man for just over a month, made a little money and moved her family to Massachusetts. The man, however, was soon arrested and cooperated with authorities by, among other things, testifying against Stephanie.

At age 23, Stephanie, a first-time, non-violent drug offender whose criminal career lasted just over a month, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. She has been in prison since 1990. (Stop and think about that for a moment: Where were you and what were you doing in 1990? Think about how long ago that was.)

Thanks to Congress’s approval last year of the Fair Sentencing Act, legislation that finally reduced excessive penalties for crack-related crimes, and to the U.S. Sentencing Commission for making its crack guideline adjustments retroactive, Stephanie had her sentenced reduced to time served.

On Monday, after serving 21 years in prison, Stephanie Nodd will walk out of prison a free woman. Over the next several weeks, she will spend her first Thanksgiving and Christmas with her now-grown children in more than two decades.

I am happy for my friend. She did not need 30 years in prison to learn a lesson from her mistake. In fact, she didn’t need 21, 15 or even 10 years to pay her debt to society. And to think she was sentenced to such an unjust term to deter others requires you to accept that her life was expendable, that it was somehow okay to sacrifice her family for the greater good. The thought makes me sick.

I cannot deny that my feelings of outrage about Stephanie’s sentence are enhanced by the government’s initial sentencing recommendation in my case: life in prison. They later changed the recommendation to 17-22 years, and then to five years. (Fortunately, the judge imposed a far shorter sentence.) This personal experience forced me to think about the amount of time we are locking up first-time, non-violent offenders in this country.

Thanks to Stephanie (and from my work at FAMM), I know that too many people are being sentenced to excessive prison terms for undeniably stupid (but not violent) mistakes. I am so thankful that Stephanie was able to avoid devolving into bitterness and despair despite spending 21 years in jail, and instead was able to show concern and compassion for a stranger with whom she had very little in common.

Stephanie has resolved to use her experiences to help others. She wants to help young people avoid repeating her youthful mistakes. In addition, she wants to help educate the public and policymakers about our severe and nonsensical sentencing laws. For those of us lucky enough to call Stephanie a friend, we are just happy that she gets to begin this new phase of her life on Monday.

Kevin Ring is a freelance writer in Kensington, Maryland. He previously served on Capitol Hill as a counsel to then-Senator John Ashcroft; executive director of the Republican Study Committee; and legislative director to former Congressman John Doolittle.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Power of a Picture

Media from Missouri this week proves that a good photo of prison overcrowding explains the problem better than reams of data and statistics do.

It started with this article and photo spread from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  The photos show inmates sleeping on the floor of a jail library and under stairwells -- not because there's not enough cell space, but because there aren't enough guards to watch over the new cell block that was supposed to ease overcrowding. The state could afford the beds, but not the staff. That ironic result puts prison budget and crowding woes in a whole new light, doesn't it?

This thoughtful reaction from the St. Louis Beacon looks at the prisoners in the photos not as just a burden on the budget but as -- prepare yourself -- actual human beings who deserve (and need) better:

One can hardly be faulted for thinking that herding dozens of inmates to sleep in a "library" - one sees no books in the photo, certainly - is to treat them not much better than animals. Our opinion of the photo should not change too much if we recall that the ones on the floor are criminals. For criminals are human beings, too. They are also our fellow citizens, however much they have betrayed our trust by breaking the law.
There is a cost here, but it is not so easily measured in narrow financial terms. It is the cost that comes with basically giving up on a segment of the population, which is the message such treatment unmistakably conveys. It says that we have stopped caring about rehabilitating inmates, or treating them with any measure of dignity. These things cost money, too, but maybe not as much as we think. It may end up costing more not to attempt to reform criminals, to give them no hope of making a better life for themselves.
It is a sad commentary on us that what will eventually change the way we deal with criminals will not be the human cost of so many lives lost in our prisons and jails, but the sheer financial bottom line. ...
I suppose one shouldn't complain too much about why we go about reforming our criminal justice system. Any change away from the horrible and unsustainable status quo - the one starkly depicted in the photo of the Jefferson County Jail - is one we should welcome.
As prisons eat up more and more of state budgets, it begs the question:  what are your taxpayer dollars actually purchasing when you pay for more cells, more guards, and longer sentences?  Is all that extra money actually making you safer, or just perpetuating an out-of-control system?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fearing the Feds

If you're a state with a serious prison overcrowding problem, you should be afraid of the federal government, according to this interesting editorial from the Anniston Star of Alabama.

Alabama is just such a state, and some think it has plenty to fear:

The Federalist Society, a group composed of conservative and libertarian-leaning members of the legal profession, sponsored a panel last week on prison overcrowding and criminal justice. A member of that panel was Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.
Strange was a good choice. If the Federalist Society is about judicial reform and returning our legal system to something closer to what the Founding Fathers — or at least those who wrote The Federalist Papers — envisioned, Alabama would be a fine place to start.
In Alabama, we have most of the problems the panel discussed neatly packaged and begging to be addressed. Straighten out Alabama, and other states will be an easy afterthought.
Consider prison overcrowding.
Strange told the group that Alabama incarcerates nearly twice as many criminals as its prisons were designed to hold. If the state does not find a remedy, the federal government is likely to find one on its own.
And that is the last thing either the Federalist Society or Luther Strange want to see happen.
It happened in California, where the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the release of nearly 30,000 inmates. Alabama’s overcrowding is worse.
Thus, it’s clear Alabama must find a way to head off federal intervention.
Add this to the list of conservative arguments in favor of sentencing reform and prison population reduction, coming from no less a conservative authority than The Federalist Society.

Any fearmongering aside, it is a legitimate argument:  if we have smart sentencing policies, our prison systems should never get so stuffed that federal intervention becomes necessary to protect the lives and well-being of those incarcerated.  The fewer people we unnecessarily send to prison, and the smarter the alternatives we use to keep people from re-offending, the better off our system will be for taxpayers, offenders, and the bottom line.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Taking, and Restoring, the Rights of Felons

That's the title of this interactive set of articles over at The New York Times today, and anyone who knows what happens when a person is convicted of a crime should find it interesting.

FAMM's work is limited to sentencing, not the so-called "collateral consequences" of a criminal conviction, but we know what a hot issue it is from phone calls with thousands of members both in and outside of prison.

When people are convicted, they lose important civil rights and privileges -- including gun ownership, voting, jury service, and access to school loans and public benefits like food stamps and public housing.  Sometimes, these rights and benefits can be lost forever and restored only if the person gets a (very rarely granted) pardon from a governor or the President of the United States.

While there are strong disagreements about restoring felon rights, one thing is certain:  the burdens of a criminal record are enormous.  It's important that we all remember that the consequences of a conviction are not limited to time in prison or on probation.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

NYT: Repeal Mandatory Minimums!

A superb editorial from The New York Times calls on Congress to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, based on the findings of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's latest report on the topic.  Here's the editorial in full:

A Blue-Ribbon Indictment
Published: November 13, 2011

A 645-page report from the United States Sentencing Commission found that federal mandatory minimum sentences are often “excessively severe,” not “narrowly tailored to apply only to those offenders who warrant such punishment,” and not “applied consistently.” That is especially so for sentences of people convicted of drug-trafficking offenses, who make up more than 75 percent of those given federal mandatory minimum sentences.

This is a powerful indictment from the commission, which has three Republicans and three Democrats and operates by consensus. The report shows that harsh mandatory minimums have contributed to the near tripling of federal prisoners in the last 20 years, reaching 208,000 in 2009 and putting federal prisons 37 percent over capacity.

The effects of mandatory minimums on repeat offenders are perhaps the harshest. In the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Congress established five-year minimum terms for “serious” traffickers and 10-year minimums for “major” traffickers, as defined by different quantities for different drugs. But those sentences are often lengthened in any number of ways. A prior conviction for any “felony drug offense” punishable by more than a year, including for simple possession, doubles those terms. Two prior convictions raise the presumption to a mandatory life term. At the same time, there can be great disparity in punishment. Committing the same drug crime can lead to a felony conviction in one state but a misdemeanor in another, which can then lead to widely differing federal sentences.

The racial disparities in sentencing are also stark. In some cases, mandatory minimums can be reduced for offenders if the crime did not involve violence or a gun. But most African-American drug offenders convicted of a crime carrying a mandatory minimum sentence could not meet these and other requirements: only 39 percent qualified for a reduction compared with 64 percent of whites.

The report notes that inequitable sentencing policies “may foster disrespect for and lack of confidence in the federal criminal justice system.” Not “may.” Given the well-documented unfairness, Congress needs to rescind all mandatory minimum sentences.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Are Mandatory Sentences Ever OK?

We're amazed how often we see it:  people can be convinced that mandatory minimum sentences are bad for nonviolent or drug offense cases, but resolutely insist that mandatory minimums are okay for violent or sex offenses.  It seems intuitive, right?  If you kill someone, you should get a mandatory minimum?  Right?

Not so fast.  In Michigan, an excellent and thoughtful series of articles (see the helpful charts and sidebar for links) is discussing this issue in-depth.  Michigan has mandatory life without parole sentences for murder.  Michigan also has the nation's second highest number of juveniles serving mandatory life without parole sentences for murder.  This editorial from the Saginaw News explains the problems with these mandatory sentences:

Some committed truly heinous acts of murder. Others are in prison for life for driving getaway cars while their murderer accomplices copped a plea and decades later are free once again.
Some were sent to prison before they were even old enough to drive.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing, calling Michigan’s juvenile lifer sentences cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit seeks parole reviews for juvenile lifers once they reach the age of 21, and then every five years.
There’s no harm in reviewing the cases of such inmates periodically, nor of holding out the possibility that some might get a chance to build a life as a free adult — an opportunity they cut short with their crimes.
That’s more — much more — than their victims ever got. The murdered and those who survive them will never get a second chance.
And truly, some juvenile lifers have earned every day that they will live behind bars for the rest of their lives.
But what about the kid who drove the getaway car? Or the teen who served as an accomplice to murder in any of a number of ways, without actually swinging the knife or pulling the trigger?
Michigan law, written long ago for adults, treats them all the same. Convicted of first-degree murder, accomplices and murderers get mandatory life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole.
It’s a harsh, and frankly just, punishment for adults who presumably are capable of determining the difference between right and wrong; adults who should have considered the consequences of their actions and turned away before committing murder or helping a killer.
Yet, there are good reasons why society doesn’t let juveniles vote in elections, smoke tobacco or sign legal documents until they have reached the age of 18, or to drink alcohol until they are 21.
Teens aren’t considered fully mature or capable of making weighty decisions until they have reached these milestone ages....
Meanwhile, Michigan’s virtual death sentence, life in prison without parole, has been applied to younger and younger criminals since 1988. That was the year laws were changed to charge 15- and 16-year-olds as adults for serious crimes. Before that, 17-year-olds were the only minors charged as adults. In 1997, the bar was lowered further still, allowing 14-year-olds to be charged as adults, and judges were no longer allowed the option of sentencing minors in serious crimes to juvenile detention with release at age 21.
Michigan has taken the judging away from its judges in cases where the wisdom of Solomon is needed most.
Which could be said of all mandatory minimum sentences -- for any kind of crime.

The number of juveniles getting life without parole for murder is apparently dropping nationally, but Michigan numbers remain high.  Here's some of the history behind these laws, and -- no surprise -- they were created in the heat of a panic by lawmakers tossing around tough-on-crime slogans like "adult crime, adult time."  But violent crime rates are at historic lows, and in many states, prison costs are at an all-time high.  It's not too late to rethink our use of mandatory minimum sentences, even for crimes that sound (and perhaps even are) really bad:
[Former Michigan representative Burton] Leland, a Detroit Democrat, thinks he and his colleagues made a mistake [in supporting mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles]. He points to the growing prison population, which tripled from 1980 to more than 45,000 in 2009, and the Department of Corrections budget, which grew from $193 million in fiscal 1980 to $1.94 billion this year.
Even factoring in inflation, that’s nearly a fourfold increase.
“Now, 25 years later, I think locking youthful offenders up for life is ridiculous,” Leland said. “Life in prison should be reserved for Hitler.”
The U.S. Supreme Court will be deciding this term whether life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend

FAMM is closed tomorrow, in honor of Veteran's Day, but we won't leave you without some juicy reading for the long weekend ahead.

This new, sure-to-madden report from the ACLU is called Banking on Bondage:  Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration.  And if that title doesn't grab you, you just haven't been studying sentencing long enough.

FAMM doesn't have an official position on the use of private prisons, but it's an extremely important issue, and one that many of our members care about deeply.  One thing we do know for sure:  we send too many people to prison for too long, and our mandatory sentencing laws allow the wrong people (legislators and prosecutors) to decide the minimum amount of time a person should spend behind bars.

The math is easy:  too many people in prison for too long = more prisons, more costs, legislators looking for more ways to save money, including using private prisons.  Do private prisons actually save money, though?  The report gets into that thorny issue starting on page 19.

There are cheaper, more effective alternatives available than jail cells.  Here's one sure-fire way to save money:  don't send people to prison if they don't need it, and let judges make that decision.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Conservatives Reforming Criminal Justice

That's the subject of this thorough and thoroughly worthwhile article from The Crime Report.  It offers all kinds of goodies:  a summary of how conservatives have gotten involved in criminal justice and sentencing reform so far, a look forward at what might happen if a Republican wins the 2012 presidential election, and a summary of the current Republican presidential candidates' past positions on crime and reform efforts.

For the record, FAMM is a nonpartisan nonprofit, which means we don't support, oppose, or endorse any candidates for political office.

Most of all, though, the article nicely sums up the political fears and pressures around sentencing reform.  Here's one point:
Conservatives like [Justice Fellowship president Pat] Nolan fear high-profile bureaucratic mistakes, for example, that could undermine their efforts.
“It’s our nightmare that somebody is released and does something horrible,” he says. “Any politician who supported something that took 6 months off of a sentence is subject to second guessing.”
“I think there’s a good answer to that,” Nolan continued, “which is that you can’t keep everybody locked up forever.... But that’s a sophisticated argument, and it’s easy to attack that person. Our fear is that as a result, all of our good bipartisan work could go up in smoke.”
Ahhh, the old Willie Horton fear -- let someone out, they reoffend, and everyone who supported reform goes the way of Michael Dukakis. But there are good examples of reforms that have produced low recidivism rates while increasing fairness in and respect for the criminal justice system.  Take 2007's retroactive crack guideline amendment changes, which have benefited over 16,000 people.  A study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission showed that crack offenders who benefited from the reforms did not re-offend at a higher rate than those who were released without benefiting.  About 30% of both groups re-offended within two years of release (some states would kill for that kind of rate!).  Not bad, and most certainly not the end of the world.

Pat Nolan is right:  we can't keep everyone in prison forever, and we can't let fear of the unknowable and uncontrollable keep us from a better, smarter, fairer sentencing system.  We can build that system one reform at a time, ensuring that a person’s sentence is appropriate given their offense and their role in it. That means that dangerous prisoners serve time in prisons, while others who aren't a real risk to public safety get sentences that fit their needs and hold them accountable at a lower cost than prison cells.  It will require bipartisan support.  And it will require people like FAMM supporters getting involved and telling their legislators that we demand better.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Latest Release: Lindsay Lohan

Mario Anzuoni - Reuters
Federal prisoners benefiting from the retroactive changes to crack sentencing guidelines weren't the only people who came home from prison this weekend:  so did Lindsay Lohan, SentenceSpeak's favorite celeb to follow.  Her sentence for her latest probation violation may have been 30 days, but Lohan spent less than five hours in the Los Angeles County jail.

The jail literally couldn't hold her ... because of overcrowding.

This article from focuses on two sources of California jail overcrowding:  most people can't pay bail to get out, and California has decided to start sending more people in, to alleviate prison overcrowding (they're calling this plan "realignment").
California is already struggling under a U.S. Supreme Court decision that described conditions in its state prisons as amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. Now counties are being required to deal with the state’s realignment program, which is shifting state prisoners convicted of low-level offenses to county supervision. ...
The pressures on the local criminal justice system will continue to mount — L.A. County expects that in the first year of the realignment program, it will supervise an additional 9,000 offenders released from state prisons. In years two and three of the program, the county expects to supervise about 15,000 additional state prison inmates.
Can California really "realign" its way out of its prison crisis?  Is that a sustainable or long-term fix?  Perhaps, as another solution, California should try scaling back its mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly the notorious "three strikes" law that is contributing to a bigger, aging, even more expensive prison population.

-- Stowe

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We Haven't Forgotten

This new article from AFRO tells the story of FAMM members Karen, Lawrence, and Lamont Garrison and their long odyssey through the justice system's skewed approach to crack cocaine sentencing.  Both Lawrence and Lamont benefited from the 2007 retroactive crack guideline changes and were released before the most recent set of retroactive changes went into effect on November 1, 2011.

Impacted family member Karen Garrison said once the Fair Sentencing Act was passed it should have made sentences retroactive. "They did it for marijuana. Why can’t it be done in this case?"
Her sons, Lawrence Garrison and his twin brother, Lamont, were convicted on cocaine conspiracy that changed to cocaine base which gave them more time. Howard University graduates, the twins represented themselves pro se after the 2007 decision came down and successfully reduced their sentences.

Lawrence spent 11 years and eight months in prison. His sentence was reduced by 36 months with five years of supervised release. He works several jobs; a real estate agent, car salesman and health care coding specialist. “I came home in the middle of a recession. I was determined to make it. With the help of my friends from Howard, good things will continue to happen.”

On the other hand, Lamont, a political science major, served 13 years and five months. His sentence was reduced by 46 months. He is currently living in a halfway house waiting to be released. His family hopes things go well.
“Both of them wanted to be lawyers but not anymore. They’ve had enough of the judicial system,” said their mother. “African Americans always get the blunt end of the stick. D.C. didn’t do anything to assist impacted families.”
These honest sentiments reflect a difficult truth:  the crack reforms weren't perfect.  The changes to the crack mandatory minimum sentences haven't been made retroactive (see H.R. 2316 for a bill that would fix this).  The 18-to-one ratio still isn't an equalized, much fairer one-to-one ratio (see H.R. 2242 for a bill that would fix this).     And then there are all the other drug offenders -- and other types of offenders, too -- serving mandatory minimum sentences that are inherently unjust because a judge never got to decide on the right sentence for each individual defendant.

We haven't forgotten that these injustices are still out there, and that's why FAMM's doors are still open, and why we're still working.

You can help:  click here to write to your federal lawmakers and urge them to finish what they started and make all the Fair Sentencing Act's reforms retroactive today!

California's Three Strikes: Can It Be Changed?

The San Jose Mercury News has this interesting article about a new proposal to scale back California's notorious mandatory minimum "three strikes" law, which has helped send the state into an unprecedented prison  spending crisis.

Here's the skinny:

An effort to limit California's tough Three Strikes Law is gaining momentum, with a proposed ballot initiative that would reserve the toughest penalty -- 25 years to life -- for the baddest of the bad, including murderers, rapists and child molesters.
The initiative, now under state legal review, was carefully crafted by a group of Stanford University law professors and stops far short of the extensive changes proposed under a previous reform measure that narrowly failed in 2004.
The Legislature and voters passed the Three Strikes Law in 1994 after several high-profile murders committed by ex-felons sparked public outrage, including the kidnapping from her Petaluma home and strangling of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Since then, the courts have sent more than 80,000 "second-strikers" and 7,500 "third-strikers" to state prison, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office. Though third-strikers make up just 6 percent of the prison population, they are responsible for a disproportionate share of the state's spiraling prison health care costs -- at least $100 million annually -- as they age and need more medical attention, according to the California auditor.
The previous measure, Proposition 66, sought to restrict felonies that trigger a "third" strike to violent or serious crimes. Under the existing law, life sentences have been issued for such relatively minor crimes as stealing a pair of socks, attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat and forging a check for $146 at Nordstrom.

In contrast, the new initiative allows certain hard-core criminals, including murderers, rapists and child molesters, to be put away for life for any felony, including shoplifting, while restricting the third strike to a serious or violent felony for everyone else.
Do you think the odds are in favor of California changing its three strikes law?  Leave your thoughts in a comment.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

After 20 Years, It's Time Congress Learned

FAMM's founder and president, Julie Stewart, started FAMM back in 1991, the first year that the U.S. Sentencing Commission released a report studying the impact of mandatory minimums.  So, 20 years later, what does Julie think of the Commission's new report on mandatory minimum sentences?

This opinion editorial over at the Huffington Post has her response. To sum it up:

Twenty years ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission concluded that mandatory minimums were not the efficient, anti-crime tool their proponents had suggested. Over the past two decades, tens of thousands of families across the country have learned the hard way, watching fathers, brothers, and other loved ones sentenced to exceedingly harsh prison terms. The Sentencing Commission is back with a new report that echoes many of its original, strong criticisms. Maybe this time Congress will learn something -- and will move to repeal these unjust, ineffective laws.

Stories of Freedom

With the retroactive crack guideline changes now in effect for the 12,000 federal prisoners who could potentially benefit from them, we're seeing a lot of news stories about this big win.

Reuters put out this story, describing how 99 New Yorkers could be released immediately.  FAMM's Mary Price stood up for those getting out, reminding people of how unfair crack laws have always been:

"There's absolutely no reason in justice or common sense to allow these people whose stories we told, whose experiences we wrung our hands over, whose cases we use as an examples, to remain in prison," said Mary Price, vice-president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a legal advocacy group that opposes mandatory minimum sentences.
This AP piece over at ABC News tells some touching stories of people coming home:
Antwain Black was facing a few more years in Leavenworth for dealing crack. But on Tuesday, he returned home to Illinois, a free man.
Black, 36, was among the first of potentially thousands of inmates who are being released early from federal prison because of an easing of the harsh penalties for crack that were enacted in the 1980s, when the drug was a terrifying new phenomenon in America's cities.
"I did more than enough time," Black said outside his family's Springfield, Ill., home, where family and friends had gathered to celebrate over dinner. "I feel like I can win this time. I'm a better man today than I was then."
This article from The New York Times shows how everyone, including the Bureau of Prisons, is putting in extra hours to ensure that no one spends more time in prison than necessary, but also notes that the law is still not perfectly just:
Chris Burke, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, said, “I would say that we’re having a busy day.” With more than 1,800 prisoners eligible for immediate release, prisons have been checking records to ensure that none have complicating factors like concurrent sentences or pending charges, he said. At the bureau’s sentence computation center in Grand Prairie, Tex., he said, employees pulled an all-nighter to ensure that all of the release paperwork was processed in time. ...

Others say the new rule does not reduce the disparity enough. Douglas A. Berman, an expert in sentencing at Ohio State University’s law school, said, “The celebration of the new reforms has to be tempered by the reality that it’s, at the most, half a loaf.”
[FAMM member] Lawrence Garrison, who was able to shave 36 months off his prison sentence during a previous disparity reduction and was released in 2009, said, “It’s a great step,” but added: “The disparity in sentencing is still there. The racial disparity is still there.”
If you have a loved one who may be eligible for the crack guideline reduction, make sure to call the federal public defender's office in the district where your loved one was convicted.  Stay in touch with your lawyers during this process -- remember, FAMM cannot tell you whether your loved one is eligible, recalculate your loved one's sentence, or help your loved one file a motion for a sentence reduction.

Julie Celebrates Crack Retroactivity on CNN!

FAMM President Julie Stewart appeared on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer yesterday, to applaud the new retroactive crack guideline changes that are now in effect.  View the video here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

New Commission Report on Mandatory Minimums!

Back in 1991, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released its first in-depth report on federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

After 20 years, the Commission released its second, yesterday.

The new 650-page report is a monster of a read, but there are highlights and plenty of fascinating statistics in this 25-page executive summary.  

The report says what FAMM has been saying for years:  mandatory minimum sentences are too harsh, are not applied fairly or evenly, fill our prisons with small fish, and have contributed to overcrowded prisons and a budget crisis.  In the words of FAMM president Julie Stewart, mandatory minimums are an expensive failure.  Read FAMM's press release here.

Unfortunately, the Commission's report doesn't repudiate all mandatory minimum sentences.  The Commission does ask Congress not to pass new mandatory sentences unless they are narrowly tailored, not too harsh, and can be applied consistently.  The problem is that those three preconditions are not true of mandatory minimum sentences; by definition, mandatory minimums are too broad, excessive, and begging for inconsistent application.

The Commission does urge Congress to reform some aspects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Many of the suggestions are reforms FAMM has been seeking for years, like expanding the "safety valve" exception for drug offenders (and other types of offenders, too, we might add) and getting rid of the requirement that mandatory sentences for gun possession be stacked on top of each other (as if one of them wasn't long enough!).

Reports like this one are vital to making sentencing reform happen.  Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed mandatory drug sentences with little study and even less data.  Good data and research should prevent bad policy.  We hope Congress will use the Commission's new report to stop proposals for more mandatory sentences from becoming law, and to get rid of the ones we have now.  

Twenty-five years of folly and waste are enough, don't you think?

Retroactive Crack Guidelines In Effect NOW!

Today's the day we've all been waiting for -- the U.S. Sentencing Commission's retroactive changes to crack cocaine sentencing guidelines are now in effect!  Up to 12,000 federal prisoners serving unfair and excessive crack cocaine sentences are now eligible for sentence reductions averaging 36 months (actual reductions could be longer or shorter, depending on the facts of the person's case).  No one gets out automatically -- they must request a sentence reduction from the court. Judges will review requests individually and can deny reductions to people who are too dangerous to be released.

Here are FAMM's thoughts on this historic day, and here are answers to frequently asked questions about what the new amendments do and how prisoners can seek their benefit.

Many are being released today or will be soon, as this CBS/AP article explains:

It's not clear how many individuals will go free on the first day inmates are eligible.

Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said Monday that officials had already received hundreds of orders for early release from judges and the number has been going up daily, "if not hourly." Prison officials have been given a grace period of several days to release certain inmates.

Those releases and others are the result of months of work by prosecutors, public defenders and judges across the country. Some public defender offices reviewed hundreds of files of potentially affected inmates. ...

In San Antonio, Texas, the federal public defender's office had about 15 to 20 immediate release cases according to assistant federal public defender Kurt May. In St. Louis, public defender Lee Lawless said his office reviewed a list of 400 people who might be affected and ultimately submitted between 30 and 50 petitions asking for inmates' immediate release. In the eastern district of Virginia, which has the highest number of affected inmates anywhere in the country, public defender Michael Nachmanoff said that by Monday evening judges had signed off on the immediate release of approximately 75 people for Tuesday.

Jim Wade, the federal public defender for Harrisburg, Pa., said he canceled vacation for his 10 attorneys until the first wave of releases is over.

"We're trying to make sure you don't serve one more day than necessary. That's the goal," Wade said.
If you have a loved one in federal prison for a crack offense, contact a lawyer or call the Federal Public Defenders' office in the district where your loved one was sentenced to find out whether they might benefit and how they can get legal help with requesting a sentence reduction.

Congratulations to the prisoners and families who are reuniting today!