Sentencing

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Looking at Louisiana's Heroin Lifers

During the research I did for Friday's feature article on the prisoners doing "Katrina time", two of the of the people I talked to implored to look into the plight of another set of victims of the Louisiana criminal justice system: the "heroin lifers." The "heroin lifers" are a group of prisoners, many now aged, who were arrested under a draconian state law enacted in 1973 that mandated life in prison without parole for the sale of any amount of heroin or possession with intent to sell. Some were released on appeal beginning in the 1980s, but others linger in prison. At this point, I'm a little unclear on the numbers and the exact situation. The tough heroin law may have changed in the 1980s--I'm not sure yet--and the state dramatically reformed its sentencing practices in 2001. So why are the good citizens of Louisiana paying to keep a bunch of non-violent old men on the geriatric ward? I just did an initial Google search, and it revealed very little: Two links to a Louisiana blog that linked to a New Orleans Times-Picayune story that can no longer be found, and a five year old plea on a prison justice mailing list for help in the case of one of the lifers, then 53-year-old Earnest Perique, who was trying to get out after serving 26 years. I'll be looking into this for another feature story next week.
Location: 
United States

Web Scan: Mark Fiore, Tony Papa, Dean Kuipers

Mark Fiore animation: The United States of Incarceration

former prisoner turned activist Anthony Papa knocks narcotics prosecutor for Rockefeller reform distortion in NYT letter to the editor

"Burning Rainbow Farm" author Dean Kuipers on "The Spirit of Tommy Chong," posted on Alternet's Drug Reporter

Feature: Brazilian President Signs New Drug Law -- No Jail for Users

Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva last week signed a bill creating a new drug law in South America's largest and most populous nation. Under the new law, drug users and possessors will not be arrested and jailed, but cited and offered rehabilitation and community service. The new law marks an important shift in Brazilian drug policy, with drug users now being officially viewed not as criminals but as people in need of medical and psychological help.

"A drug user is not a case for the police, he's a drug addict," Elias Murad, the congressman who sponsored the bill, told the Christian Science Monitor after Lula signed the bill into law. "He's more of a medical and social problem than a police problem, and that's the way thinking is going these days, not just here in Brazil but the world over. We believe that you can't send someone who is ill to jail."

"Smoking marijuana is not a crime," agreed Paulo Roberto Uchoa, who heads Brazil's National Antidrug Secretariat. "A drug user is... someone who needs counseling and information. The ones who traffic drugs are the criminals."

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Psicotropicus banner promoting marijuana (maconha) legalization
With 170 million, Brazil has emerged as a major drug market. Marijuana (or "maconha") use is common, and Brazil claims the dubious distinction of being the world's second largest cocaine market, behind the United States. Brazil has traditionally imprisoned drug users, but that is expensive and it raises the risk they will be exposed to and join the country's well-armed and violent drug trafficking gangs or "commands."

Previously, small-time drug possessors faced between six months and two years in prison, but under the new law, they face only one or more of the following: treatment, community service, fines, or suspension of their drivers' licenses. Penalties for drug traffickers and sellers, however, have been increased slightly. Under the old law, dealers face three to 15 years in prison; now they face five to 15. The law also creates a new crime of being a "narcotrafficking capitalist," punishable by between eight and 20 years in prison.

While Brazilian government officials congratulated themselves on their progressive approach, not everyone saw the glass as half full. "Let's not fool ourselves, drug use is still a crime," said Martin Aranguri Soto, a post-graduate political science student studying imprisonment at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica in Sao Paulo (and who also serves as DRCNet's translator). "Yes, the new mantra is that this has shifted from being a police matter to a public health matter," he told Drug War Chronicle. "But people are still being punished for the choices they made, and if they don’t comply with the 'socio-educational measures' the law mentions -- whatever those are -- they can still be imprisoned for six to 24 months. As if they owed society something for using drugs or needed to be 'educated' or 'corrected.'"

And while Brazilian officials are touting the alternative penalties as a better approach, Aranguri Soto suggested their primary motivation was to cool off Brazil's overcrowded and overheated prisons, home to some of the country's toughest drug overlords (who operate from behind bars) and the scene of repeatedly violent rebellions, most recently in May, when more than 160 people were killed in prison riots and street-fighting organized by the drug commands.

"The big argument supporting the alternative penalties is that it will alleviate overcrowding in the prisons," he said. "You also hear rhetoric about avoiding 'moral contamination' -- the same old formula repeated by criminologists for almost 200 years now."

Prosecutor Ricardo de Oliveira Silva, who advocated for the new law, supported Aranguri Soto's contention, telling the Christian Science Monitor the new law could mean judges send one-third fewer people to jail. That would greatly reduce overcrowding, he said.

"This law does not decriminalize drug use," complained Aranguri Soto. "It keeps punishing users, but now it treats them like sick people. It activates therapeutic justice and legitimizes the state's moralizing role when it comes to individual conduct," he argued. "The new law is a trap, a modern, compassionate, healing, therapeutic trap."

Soto and his Brazilian colleagues have now joined a debate that has swirled in US reform circles for years but which intensified with the campaign for, and passage of, California's Proposition 36 in the November 2000 election. A more hopeful view was taken in a 2003 interview with Drug War Chronicle by King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project chief Roger Goodman. "Reform is always two steps forward, one step back," Goodman said, "but now this whole idea of treatment over incarceration has been mainstreamed. It's no longer radical. The next step is government regulation of drugs instead of government regulation of human behavior. That's much more radical."

Either way, Brazil's new law has been a long time coming. First introduced by Congressman Murad in 1991, the bill took five years to pass the lower house and another five years to pass the Senate. It then languished for another five years before the Lula government got around to signing it.

Now, Brazil has taken a half-step forward. The question now is how the new law will be implemented and whether it will serve as a stepping stone to an even more progressive drug policy or an obstacle to an even more progressive drug policy.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums 15th Anniversary

September 21, 2006 Sphinx Club 1315 K St. NW, Washington, DC 6:00 reception 7:00 dinner and program Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation invites you to join in commemorating the 15th anniversary of FAMM's sentencing advocacy in Washington, DC on September 21. For 15 years, FAMM has advocated for fair and proportionate sentencing laws on behalf of the thousands of individuals and families affected by harsh mandatory sentences. Since 1991, FAMM's work has directly contributed to more equitable sentences for tens of thousands of defendants nationwide and paved the way for a shift away from mandatory sentencing policies. Among FAMM's successes are changes to federal LSD and marijuana sentencing policies, and a "safety-valve" to allow judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum in certain federal drug cases. In Michigan, FAMM led the successful effort to repeal all drug mandatory minimum sentences - a change that provided earlier parole eligibility to hundreds of prisoners serving harsh sentences. Will you please join us for cocktails, dinner and an awards program to honor the following individuals whose voices have fostered support for sentencing justice. Representatives Bob Inglis (R-SC) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) For their courageous leadership in sentencing reform Mercedes Ruehl, actress For her poignant portrayal of a mother in prison in Court TV's movie, Guilt by Association Gary Fields, Wall Street Journal reporter For his relentless coverage of those affected by sentencing and criminal justice policies JeDonna Young, formerly incarcerated mother For tipping the scales of sentencing justice in MI with her personal story With music by national recording artist Jill Sobule The host committee for the gala includes: Ed Crane The Honorable Don Edwards The Honorable Mickey Edwards Jason Flom Wade Henderson The Honorable Bob Kerrey Laura Murphy Pat Nolan Carly Simon and many others Please visit http://famm.org to purchase your tickets today, so that you won't miss out on this exclusive event! You can also show your support for FAMM by purchasing an advertisement in the dinner program. All proceeds will be used to support FAMM's work for fair and equitable sentences. I look forward to seeing you on September 21. Sincerely, Julie Stewart President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Date: 
Thu, 09/21/2006 - 6:00pm - 9:00pm
Location: 
1315 K St. NW
Washington, DC
United States

Feature: Federal Sentencing Reform Goes NASCAR

With the federal prison system stuffed to the gills and still growing, pressure for sentencing reform is building. One bill aimed at helping ex-offenders, the Second Chance Act, is moving in Congress and could pass this fall. Coming right behind it is H.R. 3072, a bill that would reintroduce parole into the federal system. And in a novel effort to broaden support for the parole bill, some of its supporters are bringing the issue to the massive NASCAR racing audience.

In the first of series of NASCAR events, on August 23 the Carter 2 Motorsports team will compete in the race at Bristol, Tennessee, using that opportunity to publicize the parole bill, as well as the organizations backing the effort, Federal CURE and FreeFeds. More than 160,000 are expected to attend, with a television audience estimated at 3 million. The effort will also be the focus of a PBS documentary with an audience estimated at between 10 and 14 million viewers when it reaches the air.

"I was a federal prisoner myself," said Carter 2 Motorsports main man Roger Carter II, who served nearly three years for a white collar offense. "I met a lot of wonderful people in prison, nonviolent drug offenders. I was able to go home after a couple of years, but these guys are serving 10, 20, 30 years or more," he told Drug War Chronicle. "Don't get me wrong. I believe people who break the law should be punished, but this is about fair and just punishment. What gets you six months in the state courts can get you six years in the federal system, and that's just not right."

While Carter's effort is relatively recent, he is encouraged by the reaction he is getting. "The support has been overwhelming," he said. "People are really susceptible to this and the press is eating it up. The whole idea is to get this before the public because people need to see where their tax dollars are going. Anyone who looks at H.R. 3072 is pleased to see it is a common sense approach to imprisonment instead of just throwing people away for no reason," he said, adding that he has H.R. 3072 messages painted on his NASCAR truck and stock car, as well as on his web sites and e-mails.

Since Congress abolished parole in the "sentencing reform" of 1986, the federal prison system has grown progressively larger, filled increasingly with nonviolent drug offenders doing lengthy sentences with no chance of more than highly limited early release for good behavior. As of this week, the federal Bureau of Prisons put its prisoner count at more than 191,000, with 54% serving time for drug offenses.

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George Martorano (courtesy We Believe Group)
That number includes George Martorano, the man who carries the unlucky distinction of being the longest serving nonviolent offender in federal prison to date, a fate he earned through a first-time marijuana offense. Martorano is now 23 years into a life sentence with no chance of parole. It was Martorano's plight that inspired Florida resident John Flahive to join the fight for sentencing reform.

"I was courting a young lady, and one night when I was at her house, the phone rang with a message. It was a call from a federal inmate," Flahive explained. "It was George, and the young lady was his sister. She told me he was doing life without parole and I asked her how many people he killed," he told the Chronicle. "He didn't kill anybody. He was involved in a deal -- around 2400 pounds of pot. After a while, I went to visit him, and found he was a pretty nice guy -- he writes books and teaches other inmates and has a perfect prison record. We figured we had to help him out somehow, so we created the We Believe Group to try to raise awareness of his plight."

It has been an education, said Flahive. "I started working on this five years ago. Before that, I wasn't involved, I didn't even vote," he explained. "I figured George's case was a screw up, but as I got more involved, I realized there were thousands of Georges rotting away in there." As a result, Flahive has broadened his activism and is now working to get sentencing reform legislation through Congress. He, too, will be heading to the NASCAR tracks along with Carter in an effort to bring the message to the masses of racing fans.

"I'm working with Federal CURE on this," he said. "They've got two motor homes that we will dress up with H.R. 3072 and we'll have lots of literature to hand out. People listen when you tell them if they pay federal taxes they are affected by the cost of the federal prison system. Federal parole could save $4 billion a year," Flahive claimed.

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Rep. Danny Davis
The federal parole has been around for awhile and was originally sponsored by Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI), but since her unexpected death in 2002, Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) has taken up the gauntlet and is now the lead sponsor. Davis was traveling and unavailable for comment this week, but his communications director, Ira Cohen, told the Chronicle the bill could use all the help it can get. "Rep. Davis is proud of all that he has accomplished with the Second Chance Act and the parole bill, and he continues to look for support," said Cohen.

A source close to Davis told the Chronicle that Davis is concentrating this fall on the Second Chance Act as a means of opening the door to a serious discussion of sentencing reform in Congress. "The strategy has always been to press for another bill to pass first, and the Second Chance Act is very close now," the source said. "If it passes, the congressman intends to use that opportunity to have this broader discussion on the parole bill because it will open up the whole issue of broader federal criminal justice reform."

But Flahive, Carter, and 100,000 federal drug war prisoners aren't waiting for Congress to act -- they're pushing it to act. In addition to the Bristol race on the 23rd, Carter and his H.R. 3072 car and truck will be racing NASCAR tracks at New Hampshire, Martinsville, and Homestead and taking the message to the masses. "Like anything else, once this gets some momentum, once politicians see they can benefit from voting for this, it'll be all over. We're here to help the people get the politicians to that point."

Sentencing: Federal Judges More Likely to Acquit Than Juries

Federal judges are much more likely to acquit defendants than juries are, according to a review of some 77,000 federal criminal trials between 1989 and 2002. Juries convicted 84% of defendants, while judges in bench trials convicted only about half. The phenomenon is recent, with judges and juries convicting at about the same rate from the 1960s through the 1980s, and prior to that, judges were much more likely to convict than juries.

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The findings come from a paper published by University of Illinois College of Law professor Andrew Leipod, "Why Are Judges So Acquittal-Prone?," published in the Washington University Law Quarterly and discussed at some length at the Volokh Conspiracy blog. According to Leipold, he was puzzled at the shift and sought an answer.

"The core problem," he wrote, "is to find something about criminal trials that has changed since the late 1980s, something that would affect judges but not juries." The evidence suggests a likely culprit, Leipod argued. "I think the sentencing guidelines best fits this description. The guidelines took away a huge amount of sentencing discretion, which meant that judges were more often faced with cases where they knew that a conviction would result in a harsh - maybe too harsh - sentence. We don't have to say that judges were acting 'lawlessly' to reach the unremarkable conclusion that judges may hold the government even more tightly to its burden of proof when the stakes are high and unforgiving."

Because judges do not fill out forms showing what factors they weigh when they rule, any evidence of a link between conviction rates and the sentencing guidelines is necessarily indirect, but, Leipold notes, it is probably not coincidence that "with the Guidelines really hitting stride just as the judicial conviction rate started to slide." Many judges "were harshly critical of the how the guidelines made it harder for them to do justice in individual cases," he noted.

[Editor's Note: One might suppose that mandatory minimum sentencing is also having this effect on federal judges -- an equally, sometimes harsher federal sentencing system that is parallel to and interlocks with the guidelines. Congress enacted mandatory minimums very hastily, two years after creating the sentencing guidelines, following the 1986 overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias.]

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