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Alabama Townhall meeting on Discriminatory Federal Drug Sentencing

The ACLU Washington Legislative Office and the ACLU of Alabama will host a townhall meeting in Birmingham, Alabama on the need to repair the current discriminatory federal drug sentencing policy. The event is open to the press, and ACLU speakers will be available afterwards for interviews. Speakers include: -Senator Jeff Sessions (R - AL) (invited) -Ed Vaughan, President, Alabama State Conference NAACP -State Representative Artur Davis, (D - Birmingham) -Dr. Ralph Hendrix, University of Alabama at Birmingham -Deborah Vagins, Policy Council for Civil Rights, ACLU Washington Legislative Office -Barry Hargrove, Field Organizer, ACLU Washington Legislative Office Currently, distributing just five grams of crack carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence, while distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same sentence. Despite repeated recommendations by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Congress has not addressed this 100:1 sentencing disparity, which has devastated African-American communities and undermined faith in the criminal justice system. African-Americans comprise the vast majority of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses, although whites and Hispanics form the majority of crack users. A 2006 ACLU report found no medical or legal justification for the unfair sentencing disparity ratio. Although Congress stated intent was to target high-level cocaine traffickers, the result has been just the opposite - a 2002 USSC report found that only 15 percent of federal cocaine traffickers can be classified as high-level, while over 70 percent of crack defendants have low-level involvement in drug activity, such as street level dealers, couriers, or lookouts. The ACLU report, "Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law," is available at: http://www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/sentencing/27181pub20061026.html
Date: 
Sat, 06/02/2007 - 9:00am - 3:00pm
Location: 
112 14th Street, North
Birmingham, AL 35203
United States

As Illinois' drug policy changes, incarcerations soar

Location: 
IL
United States
Publication/Source: 
Chicago Tribune
URL: 
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chicago/chi-0705210673may22,1,6522493.story?coll=chi-newslocalchicago-hed

Feature: US Sentencing Commission Again Calls on Congress to Fix Crack-Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/lillieblevins.jpg
the late Lillie Blevins, served life sentence for a crack cocaine ''conspiracy'' after being convicted on the word of a snitch who received probation in return (courtesy november.org)
In its annual report to Congress, the US Sentencing Commission has once again called on legislators to reduce the tough penalties for federal crack cocaine offenses. The commission's previous calls to fix the 100:1 disparity between the amount of crack and the amount of powder cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory minimum sentences have either been ignored or slapped down by previous Congresses. Whether the new Democratic majority in Congress will allow reform to be accomplished this year remains to be seen.

Under federal law in effect since 1987, someone charged with possessing five grams of crack faces a mandatory minimum five-year sentence. By contrast, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine -- one hundred times as much -- to trigger the same sentence.

While the Sentencing Commission cannot itself enact changes in the crack cocaine law -- that's up to Congress -- it has already signaled its impatience with congressional inaction. A little more than two weeks ago, the commission adjusted federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses so that crack offenders will serve on average about a year less than under the old guidelines. That move alone will provide small relief to thousands of federal crack prisoners.

But the real problem is the harsh mandatory minimums for federal crack offenses. The Sentencing Commission found that:

  1. The current quantity-based penalties overstate the relative harmfulness of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine.
  2. The current quantity-based penalties sweep too broadly and apply most often to lower level offenders.
  3. The current quantity-based penalties overstate the seriousness of most crack cocaine offenses and fail to provide adequate proportionality.
  4. The current severity of crack cocaine penalties mostly impacts minorities.

"Based on these findings," the report read, "the Commission maintains its consistently held position that the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio significantly undermines the various congressional objectives set forth in the Sentencing Reform Act." While noting that setting appropriate thresholds is "a difficult and imprecise undertaking that ultimately is a policy decision," the Commission nevertheless "strongly and unanimously" urged Congress to adopt the following recommendations:

  1. Increase the five-year and ten-year statutory mandatory minimum threshold quantities for crack cocaine offenses to focus the penalties more closely on serious and major traffickers as described generally in the legislative history of the 1986 Act.
  2. Repeal the mandatory minimum penalty provision for simple possession of crack cocaine under 21 U.S.C. § 844.
  3. Reject addressing the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio by decreasing the five-year and ten-year statutory mandatory minimum threshold quantities for powder cocaine offenses, as there is no evidence to justify such an increase in quantity-based penalties for powder cocaine offenses (e.g., don't increase powder cocaine sentences).

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/ussc-chart.jpg
graph from report, crack cocaine amounts nearly invisible next to the powder amounts
Groups that have long advocated for reform of the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity and the removal of mandatory minimum sentences reacted with pleasure mixed with a hint of impatience. They have been waiting a long time for action on this front.

"The prisoners, children and families torn apart by these unjustifiably harsh penalties are watching closely and will welcome crack sentencing reforms that restore some justice to crack penalties," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Only Congress can change our harsh mandatory minimum crack laws. Lawmakers should not squander the important opportunity presented by the most recent set of findings and recommendations by the Sentencing Commission. The time is ripe for reform, especially given the bipartisan support for crack sentencing reform that has emerged in recent years."

"The current sentencing structure has had a disproportionate and unfair impact on African-American and low income communities," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, "and we're encouraged that the US Sentencing Commission has once again acknowledged this fact. But 2007 marks the fourth time in 20 years that the commission has issued such a report, and Congress has yet to address the problem. Years of medical and legal research have shown no appreciable difference between crack and powder cocaine, and no justification for allowing the vast sentencing gap between them to stand. We urge Congress to put aside politics and act now to fix this discriminatory federal drug sentencing policy."

But it is not reform advocates but members of Congress who will or will not enact most reforms. While in the past, Congress has rejected such recommendations from the Commission, there are some indications support for reforms is growing.

"It's past time to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences actually," Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions told National Public Radio, "because the penalties on crack cocaine are extraordinarily heavy -- too heavy to be justified as public policy." His colleagues should listen to the Commission, Sessions added. Sessions has already introduced a bill that would reduce the disparity to 20:1.

Another key player, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the legal publication the Daily Journal the report's findings were "an important first step" in correcting the sentencing disparity. "For far too long, the federal crack/powder sentencing laws have created an injustice in our nation," he said. Leahy said he hopes that federal prosecutors will focus more on drug kingpins.

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware), who has announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has also weighed in. "This 100:1 disparity is unjust, unfair, and the time has long past for it to be undone," Biden said in a Tuesday press release. "The current sentencing disparity between the two forms of cocaine is based on false notions and old logic," said Sen. Biden. "Congress has ignored this issue for too long. I intend to introduce legislation to remedy the disparity and refocus the federal cocaine sentencing laws and federal resources on major drug kingpins, as was the intent of the 1986 law. I look forward to working with my colleagues -- Republicans and Democrats -- and urge them to support righting this wrong."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/crackcocaine.jpg
DEA crack cocaine photo
"There is indeed growing support for reducing the disparities," said Bill Piper, head of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Biden, Sessions, and Sen. Hatch [R-Utah] are all working on bills, and so is Charley Rangel [D-New York] in the House," he told Drug War Chronicle. "There is growing support in the judiciary committees for doing something."

But, Piper warned, the devil is in the details. "They agree that something needs to be done, but I'm not sure they will reach agreement on what needs to be done. Then it would have to pass floor votes, and then we have to wonder if Bush would veto it," he said. "But when you have the Sentencing Commission and leading Republicans signing off on something, the Democrats should be emboldened. That shows this is a bipartisan effort."

Even the Justice Department is wavering. While Piper noted that the department has long taken the position that there was no problem, department spokesman Bryan Sierra told the Daily Journal this week that the agency is "willing to discuss the disparity in the ratio for sentencing between crack and powder cocaine," but he added that the department believes that "it should be done in the broader context of sentencing reform."

For the fourth time since 1995, the Sentencing Commission has urged Congress to act to reduce the disparity and bring greater fairness to sentencing. Now it is in Congress' hands.

DPA Press Release: US Sentencing Commission urges Congress to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

For Immediate Release: May 17, 2007 Contact: Jasmine L. Tyler at 202-294-8292 US Sentencing Commission urges Congress to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Experts to Brief Congress on Current Cocaine Policy and the Need for Reform Washington, DC—Criminal justice experts will hold briefings on the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity for Congressional staffers on Monday, May 21. They will discuss the United States Sentencing Commission’s (USSC) May 2007 Guideline Amendment and Report to Congress. Joining the panel will be Hilary Shelton from the NAACP, Pat Nolan from Prison Fellowship, and Lisa Rich from the USSC. These briefings will be moderated by Jessalyn McCurdy of the ACLU and Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project. The briefing is co-sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance. ********************************************************************* WHAT: Reforming Crack and Powder Cocaine Sentencing Briefing for Congressional staffers WHO: Members of Congress and staff, media, policy advocates, stakeholders, treatment providers, faith leaders When: Monday, May 21 House Briefing: 9 a.m. - B340 Rayburn House Office Building Senate Briefing: 2 p.m. - 485 Russell Senate Office Building ********************************************************************* Twenty years ago when the crack cocaine sentencing laws were first passed by Congress, the United States faced a panic about the alleged “crack epidemic” and operated under the impression that crack had inherent properties that made it infinitely more dangerous than powder cocaine. These reports, which served as the basis for the huge disparity, have since been found to be fundamentally flawed, rendering the 100-to-1 disparity arbitrary and capricious. Further, these laws have proven ineffective in reducing drug use or distribution and have instead exacerbated racial disparity and injustices in our criminal justice system. The USSC has taken the lead on eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity by amending the federal sentencing guidelines to lessen the punishment range for crack cocaine cases by approximately one to two years. The Commission also urged Congress to reform federal mandatory minimum sentences to reduce the statutory disparity. Currently, there is growing bipartisan support for reforming the crack/powder disparity. There are two house bills pending and a similar one before the Senate. # # #
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

DPA Press Release: Lawmakers, judges, and advocates rebuke Gov. O’Malley’s veto of sentencing reform bill

For Immediate Release: May 17, 2007 Contact: Naomi Long (202) 669-6071 or Laura Jones: (202) 425-4659 Lawmakers, judges, and advocates rebuke Gov. O’Malley’s veto of sentencing reform bill; O’Malley “clinging to the failed policies of the past” in a “lapse of leadership” Coalition vows to continue educating O’Malley, promoting treatment instead of prisons Annapolis—A coalition of advocates, law enforcement officials, drug treatment providers and policy experts today denounced Governor O’Malley’s veto of a bill that would have provided the possibility of parole for non-violent drug offenders. The sentencing reform bill, HB 992, was one of the only bills vetoed by O’Malley, despite its support from the legislature, the coalition, and the editorial pages of the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. “The veto is a disappointing mistake,” said Justice Policy Institute executive director Jason Ziedenberg. “Instead of taking a baby step in the right direction towards treatment instead of prison, O’Malley is stubbornly clinging to the failed tough on crime policies of the past. The governor failed to show leadership and vision in this decision.” States across the country have taken steps to reform ineffective mandatory sentencing laws that remove discretion to consider the individual facts of the case. Newly-elected Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (D) recently called for wide ranging mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Newly-elected New York Governor Elliot Spitzer added language in his budget for a prison closure commission, and is considering a bill to further reform the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. Under the comparatively modest Maryland reform, individuals convicted of a 10-year sentence for a nonviolent drug reform would have been eligible for, but not guaranteed, parole. Individuals convicted of violent crimes would serve the full 10-year sentences. “Governor O’Malley has put Maryland out of step with other states that are moving in the direction of smarter, more effective sentencing policies,” said Naomi Long, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance District of Columbia Metropolitan Area project. “This veto was a lapse of leadership, and hurts Maryland’s efforts to implement the kinds of real reforms that would actually make a difference.” The state of Maryland spends millions of dollars each year incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders, the vast majority of whom would be better served by drug treatment options. A recent report by the Justice Policy Institute found that Maryland's sentencing laws disproportionately affect communities of color and may be the least effective, most expensive way to promote public safety. “The fight for more effective and fair sentencing policies isn’t over,” said Delegate Curtis Anderson (D-Baltimore), a sponsor of the legislation. “Maryland voters want more fair and effective sentencing policies. We will keep working with the Governor to implement those reforms.” The Partnership for Treatment, Not Incarceration supported HB 992, and is a consortium of organizations and individuals including members of faith communities, public health and drug treatment professionals, public defenders, judges, police and other law enforcement. For more information about bill, or to interview spokespeople who can respond, contact Naomi Long (202)669-6071. To learn more about sentencing reform work in Maryland, visit: www.justicepolicy.org and www.drugpolicy.org . ###
Location: 
Annapolis, MD
United States

Sentencing: Maryland Governor Vetoes Bill To Give Two-Time Drug Sales Offenders Parole Eligibility

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have provided the possibility of parole to people serving second-time drug sales sentences. Under current Maryland law, such offenders must serve a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence with no possibility of parole. The law would not have applied to violent offenders.

But in an interview with the Associated Press explaining his veto, O'Malley said he considered drug dealing to be a violent crime in itself. "Drug dealing is a violent crime, and the morgues of many of our counties and state are filled with the bodies that have been taken far too early because of drug distribution," O'Malley said. Maryland already provides opportunities for second-offenders to get drug treatment, he claimed, adding that the bill "unnecessarily broadens current law and makes parole a possibility, however remote, for drug dealers who are driven by greed and profit supported by violence, not addiction."

The bill, HB 992, passed the legislature with bipartisan support and was backed by a broad coalition of drug reformers, the faith community, public health and law enforcement officials, and drug treatment providers, as well as the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. The coalition is not happy with O'Malley.

"The veto is a disappointing mistake," said Justice Policy Institute executive director Jason Zeidenberg. "Instead of taking a baby step in the right direction towards treatment instead of prison, O'Malley is stubbornly clinging to the failed tough on crime policies of the past. The governor failed to show leadership and vision in this decision."

"Governor O'Malley has put Maryland out of step with other states that are moving in the direction of smarter, more effective sentencing policies," said Naomi Long, director of the Drug Policy Alliance District of Columbia Metropolitan Area project. "This veto was a lapse of leadership, and hurts Maryland's efforts to implement the kinds of real reforms that would actually make a difference."

The state of Maryland spends millions of dollars each year incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders, the vast majority of whom would be better served by drug treatment options. A recent report by the Justice Policy Institute found that Maryland's sentencing laws disproportionately affect communities of color and may be the least effective, most expensive way to promote public safety.

"The fight for more effective and fair sentencing policies isn't over," said Delegate Curtis Anderson (D-Baltimore), a sponsor of the legislation. "Maryland voters want more fair and effective sentencing policies. We will keep working with the governor to implement those reforms."

Sentencing: Nevada Supreme Court Justices Ask Legislature for More Discretion, More Funding for Drug Courts

Two Nevada Supreme Court justices appeared before the state Senate Judiciary Committee Monday to argue for increased discretion in sentencing and increased funding for drug and mental health programs, including drug courts. Nevada enacted mandatory minimum drug laws in 1995 that have contributed to an ever-increasing prison population.

Justice Jim Hardesty asked lawmakers to consider amending the sentencing laws to allow judges to deviate from the mandatory minimums as long as they submit written explanations of why the downward deviation was appropriate. Hardesty cited the senselessness of some drug sentences.

"It makes absolutely no sense for us to sentence a young man to 10 to 25 years in the Nevada state prison who gets paid $150 to drive a car from Sacramento to Utah" containing narcotics, Hardesty told the committee. He added that current law does not allow judges to deviate from sentencing rules or allow prosecutors to makes deals in such cases.

Hardesty was joined by Chief Justice Bill Maupin in asking committees that control spending to allot more money for drug and mental health court programs that can divert offenders from prison. "When I first heard about this program, I was very skeptical," Maupin told the committee. "What I found out was that mental health courts around this country have become very well recognized as having permanent success."

Hardesty added that the Supreme Court had requested $5 million in state general funds to pay for drug courts and treatment programs, but a budget subcommittee had only voted to approve $1 million. "Compared to what we requested, and compared to frankly what the demand is -- which is $30 million -- it was disappointing," said Hardesty.

While the justices have so far been unable to win increased funding for diversion programs, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) is calling on the legislature to spend $300 million on new prison construction. Nevada currently has more than 13,000 prisoners and is admitting more than 600 new ones each month, nearly double the rate of admissions in 1990.

As for sentencing discretion, Judiciary Chairman Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) told the justices he is open to the idea, but judges would have to be very careful not to arouse the wrath of victims' rights groups, who successfully demanded the tougher sentencing law in 1995. "Those mandatory sentencings were the result of rooms like this being packed with people who said, 'Hey, so and so got a sweetheart of a deal,"' said Amodei.

Three-month drugs trial takes its toll

Location: 
Auckland
New Zealand
Publication/Source: 
Stuff (New Zealand)
URL: 
http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/4062954a12855.html

Government unveils tough new anti-drug measures

Location: 
Georgia
Publication/Source: 
The Messenger (Georgia)
URL: 
http://www.messenger.com.ge/issues/1357_may_16_2007/n_1357_3.htm

FAMM urges Congress to heed message from Commission, New report finds crack disparity unjustifiable, up to Congress to fix the problem

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Federal crack cocaine penalties overstate the harmfulness of the drug, apply mostly to low-level offenders, and hit minorities hardest, concludes the U.S. Sentencing Commission in a new report to Congress, "Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy," released today, May 15. Based on these findings, the Commission maintains it's consistently held position that current crack cocaine penalties significantly undermine the congressional objectives of the Sentencing Reform Act, including fairness, uniformity and proportionality. The solution? Congress should act, says the report. Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a national, nonpartisan sentencing reform organization, says, "The prisoners, children and families torn apart by these unjustifiably harsh penalties are watching closely and will welcome crack sentencing reforms that restore some justice to crack penalties. Only Congress can change our harsh mandatory minimum crack laws. Lawmakers should not squander the important opportunity presented by the most recent set of findings and recommendations by the Sentencing Commission. The time is ripe for reform, especially given the bipartisan support for crack sentencing reform that has emerged in recent years." In its report, the Commission again unanimously and strongly urged Congress to act promptly on the following recommendations: (1) Increase the five-year and ten-year mandatory minimum threshold quantities for crack cocaine offenses to focus the penalties more closely on serious and major traffickers, (2) Repeal the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine and (3) Reject addressing the 100-to-1 disparity by decreasing the five-year and ten-year mandatory minimum threshold quantities for powder cocaine offenses, citing no evidence to justify such an increase in quantity-based penalties for powder cocaine offenses. In addition, the Commission seeks authority to incorporate any future changes to the mandatory minimums for crack into the federal sentencing guidelines. FAMM strongly supports these recommendations and looks forward to working with members of Congress to implement these reasonable and long-overdue reforms to crack cocaine sentencing. Visit www.ussc.gov to read the report. --------------------------------------------------- Note on Second Chance Act H.R. 1593, the Second Chance Act, was pulled from the floor of the House of Representatives before it was voted on. FAMM is investigating this unexpected action and will follow up with more information on www.famm.org and ealerts. --------------------------------------------------- What is FAMM? FAMM is the national voice for fair and proportionate sentencing laws. We shine a light on the human face of sentencing, advocate for state and federal sentencing reform and mobilize thousands of individuals and families whose lives are adversely affected by unjust sentences. For more information, visit www.famm.org or email famm@famm.org.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

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