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Latin America: Ecuador President Wants to Pardon Drug "Mules"

In his weekly radio address last Saturday, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa proposed pardoning low-level drug couriers, commonly known as "mules." Correa also called for drafting new drug laws that more accurately reflect the severity of various drug crimes.

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Rafael Correa
Correa said he would ask a special assembly drafting a new constitution to pardon the mules. The assembly has taken on legislative powers since the country's congress was suspended last month, and Correa and his political allies control 60% of the assembly.

Under current Ecuadorian drug laws, which Correa complained were drafted under pressure from Washington, people caught with as little as 3 1/2 ounces of cocaine can be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, a situation Correa called "absurd." The current law "treats as the same the boss of the Cali cartel and a poor unemployed single mother who dared to carry 300 grams of drugs," Correa said. "It's a barbarity."

While Ecuador produces almost no coca, the key ingredient in cocaine, it is frequently used as a transit country for drugs coming from neighboring Colombia and Peru, the world's top two coca producers, to the United States.

Since his election earlier this year, Correa has been a critic of the US drug war in Latin America. He has refused to extend the lease on the US airbase at Manta, and has buddied up with Washington's bête noire, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. When it comes to the drug war, Correa also has some personal experience. Earlier this year, he acknowledged that his father, who died when he was nine, served three years in prison in the US for carrying drugs.

Prisons: Facing Budget Crisis, California Governor Ponders Early Release of 22,000 Nonviolent Offenders

Faced with a $14 billion budget deficit next year, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering a proposal to slash ballooning prison spending by granting early release to some 22,000 nonviolent, non-sex offender inmates. The proposal would also cut the state's prison population by another 6,000 by changing the way parole violations are handled. But Schwarzenegger has not approved the proposal, and it is already generating political opposition.

With some 172,000 inmates, California's prison system is second only to the federal system in size, and its budget has ballooned by 79% in the last five years to nearly $8 billion. Still, the system is vastly overcrowded and faces two federal class-action suits seeking to cap inmate populations because overcrowding is resulting in the state not delivering constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care.

According to the California Department of Corrections' latest prisoner census, more than 35,000, or 20.6%, of those prisoners are doing time for drug offenses. Drug offenders, property offenders, and "other" nonviolent offenders together account for half the state prison population.

Under the plan, presented to the governor's office by his departmental budget managers, low-risk offenders with fewer than 20 months left in their sentences would be released early. That would save the state about $250 million in the coming fiscal year and more than $780 million through June 2010, according to the Sacramento Bee, which first broke the story last week. It would also involve cutting some 4,000 prison jobs, mostly for the state's highly paid prison guards, whose base salary is nearly $60,000 a year.

The proposal also calls for a "summary" parole system, where released offenders would remain under supervised release, but would not be returned to prison for technical parole violations, such as dirty drug tests or missing an appointment, but only if they are convicted of a new crime. Moving to a summary system would cut the average parole population by 18,500 in the next fiscal year and reduce the prison population by another 6,250, according to the proposal. It would also cost about 1,660 parole jobs. Altogether, changes in the parole system would save the state $329 million through June 2010.

While such a proposal would be groundbreaking if enacted, the odds appear long. Queried by the press after the Bee broke the story, Schwarzenegger spokesman Bill Maile said the governor had not decided if he liked the idea or not. "The governor asked his department heads to work with their budget managers to find ways to cut the budget by 10% because of the budget crisis we are facing, and this idea was one of many that was floated in reaction to that request," Maile said. "It's not a proposal yet, just an idea."

Early reaction from the political class has not been good. Rep. Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), head of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said Democratic reaction would range from skepticism to outright opposition. "Many of us are going to have some very strong concerns about whether it's the direction we want to begin taking," Solorio told the Bee in a followup story. Early releases are "DOA" with Assembly Republicans, he added.

Republican Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), one of his party's criminal justice leaders, said early releases would undermine recently enacted Assembly Bill 900, a $7.9 billion measure that will add 53,000 jail and prison beds, but also establish rehabilitation as the philosophical underpinning of the state's prison system.

"By letting people out 20 months early, which is supposed to be when they get their reentry skills, they're not going to get them at all, so recidivism is going to get worse," Spitzer said. "This budget plan is a forfeiture of AB 900 principles, which was supposed to change how we treat criminality in California."

Republican political consultant Ray McNally was even more dramatic. "It's pretty clear, the governor has decided not to run for US Senate or other political office," said McNally, whose clients include the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. "You can't release 22,000 people from prison and expect to ever get elected to another office again. I think he's made his decision to retire from politics."

If Schwarzenegger braves the firestorm and adopts the proposal, he will probably include it in budget filings next month. If the proposal makes it to the final appropriations bill, that bill must pass with a two-thirds vote. There is a long way to go, but this proposal at least acknowledges that there might be a better path than just building more prisons.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice," by Ethan Brown (2007, Public Affairs Press, 273 pp., $25.95 HB)

When a Baltimore hustler clothing line manufacturer and barber named Rodney Bethea released a straight-to-DVD documentary about life on the mean streets of West Baltimore back in 2004 in a bid to further the hip-hop careers of some of his street-savvy friends, he had no idea "Stop Fucking Snitching, Vol. I" (better known simply as "Stop Snitching") would soon become a touchstone in a festering conflict over drugs and crime on the streets of America and what to do about it.

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In a steadily rising crescendo of concern that reached a peak earlier this year when CBS' 60 Minutes ran a segment on the stop snitching phenomenon, police, politicians and prosecutors from across the country, but especially the big cities of the East Coast, lamented the rise of the stop snitching movement. Describing it as nothing more than witness intimidation by thugs out to break the law and get away with it, they charged that "stop snitching" was perverting the American justice system.

Not surprisingly, the view was a little different from the streets. Thanks largely to the war on drugs and the repressive legal apparatus ginned up to prosecute it, the traditional mistrust of police and the criminal justice system by poor, often minority, citizens has sharpened into a combination of disdain, despair, and defiance that identifies snitching -- or "informing" or "cooperating," if one wishes to be more diplomatic -- as a means of perpetuating an unjust system on the backs of one's friends and neighbors.

At least that's the argument Ethan Brown makes rather convincingly in "Snitch." According to Brown, the roots of the stop snitching movement can be traced directly to the draconian drug war legislation of the mid-1980s, when the introduction of mandatory minimums and harsh federal sentencing guidelines -- five grams of crack can get you five years in federal prison -- led to a massive increase in the federal prison population and a desperate scramble among low-level offenders to do anything to avoid years, if not decades, behind bars.

The result, Brown writes, has been a "cottage industry of cooperators" who will say whatever they think prosecutors want to hear and repeat their lies on the witness stand in order to win a "5K" motion from prosecutors, meaning they have offered "substantial assistance" to the government and are eligible for a downward departure from their guidelines sentence. Such practices are perverse when properly operated -- they encourage people to roll over on anyone they can to avoid prison time -- but approach the downright criminal when abused.

And, as Brown shows in chapter after chapter of detailed examples, abuse of the system appears almost the norm. In one case Brown details, a violent cooperator ended up murdering a well-loved Richmond, Virginia, family. In another, the still unsolved death of Baltimore federal prosecutor Richard Luna, the FBI seems determined to obscure the relationship between Luna and another violent cooperator. In still another unsolved murder, that of rapper Tupac Shakur, Brown details the apparent use of snitches to frame a man authorities suspect knows more about the killing than he is saying. In perhaps the saddest chapter, he tells the story of Euka Washington, a poor Chicago man now doing life in prison as a major Iowa crack dealer. He was convicted solely on the basis of uncorroborated and almost certainly false testimony from cooperators.

The system is rotten and engenders antipathy toward the law, Brown writes. The ultimate solution, he says, is to change the federal drug and sentencing laws, but he notes how difficult that can be, especially when Democrats are perpetually fearful of being Willy Hortoned every time they propose a reform. The current glacial progress of bills that would address one of the most egregious drug war injustices, the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, is a sad case in point.

Brown addresses the quickness with which police and politicians blamed the stop snitching movement for increases in crime, but calls that a "distraction from law enforcement failures." It's much easier for cops and politicians to blame the streets than to take the heat for failing to prosecute cases and protect witnesses, and it's more convenient to blame the street than to notice rising income equality and a declining economy.

While Brown doesn't appear to want to throw the drug war baby out with the snitching bathwater, he does make a few useful suggestions for beginning to change the way the drug war is prosecuted. Instead of blindly going after dealers by weight, he argues, following UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, target those who engage in truly harmful behavior. That will not only make communities safer by ridding them of violent offenders, it will reduce the pressure to cooperate by low-level offenders as police attention and resources shift away from them.

Cooperating witnesses also need greater scrutiny, limits need to be put on 5K motions, cooperator testimony must be corroborated, and perjuring cooperators should be prosecuted, Brown adds. Too bad he doesn't have much to say about what to do with police and prosecutors who knowingly rely on dishonest snitches.

"It was never meant to intimidate people from calling the cops," Rodney Bethea said of his DVD, "and it was never directed at civilians. If your grandmother calls the cops on people who are dealing drugs on her block, she's supposed to do that because she's not living that lifestyle. When people say 'stop snitching' on the DVD, they're referring to criminals who lead a criminal life who make a profit from criminal activities... What we're saying is you have to take responsibility for your actions. When it comes time for you to pay, don't not want to pay because that is part of what you knew you were getting into in the first place. Stop Snitching is about taking it back to old-school street values, old-school street rules."

Playing by the old-school rules would be a good thing for street hustlers. It would also be a good thing for the federal law enforcement apparatus. It's an open question which group is going to get honorable first.

Law Enforcement: Chicago's Courts Are in Crisis, and the Drug War Is a Big Contributor, Report Finds

Judges in Chicago's main Criminal Court Building at 26th and California hear some 28,000 felony cases a year, with each judge hearing about 800, or about four per judge per work day. Nonviolent, drug-related charges make up more than half of them, according to a report recently released by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Social Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on social justice and governmental effectiveness, especially regarding the criminal justice system. The clogging of the courts with low-level drug offenders is a major factor in a gravely dysfunctional criminal justice system, the report concludes.

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Cook County court house (chicagopc.info)
Based on more than 100 interviews with criminal justice system professionals, more than 160 hours of courtroom observation of more than 500 proceedings, interviews with victims, defendants, witnesses, and family members, and surveys of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, A Report on Chicago's Felony Courts is a thorough, comprehensive, and eye-opening look at the way justice is served in one of the nation's largest cities.

"The sheer volume of cases in Chicago's felony courts overwhelms the judges,
prosecutors, and public defenders," the report notes in the first sentence of its executive summary. After enumerating the dimensions of the crisis, the report's authors go on to make a series of findings and recommendations aimed at everyone from the state legislature (it "has overburdened the criminal courts by passing criminal laws without regard to cost, impact, or resources" and should quit doing so) to the Cook County Board (quit using the courts for patronage, provide them with sufficient resources) to the 26th Street court administrators (increase professionalism, improve facilities).

But the bulk of the report's recommendations are devoted to dealing with nonviolent drug offenders. As the authors noted in describing the problem: "Non-violent, drug-related charges make up more than half of the cases. When asked to identify changes they would like to see in the criminal justice system, more than a third of the professionals focused on drug cases. There was nearly unanimous frustration: 'Drug cases have crippled the system,' said one prosecutor. Another prosecutor said: 'We've become a factory mill, just concerned with the disposition of the case. There's not enough consideration of if the person needs prison time or needs an extra attempt at rehabilitation.' The volume of drug prosecutions is dealt with through assembly-line plea bargaining. There is a feeling of grim reality among courtroom professionals about the system's inability to rehabilitate addicts, but there is no consensus about how to deal with drug abuse. Many judges believe that the existing alternative treatment programs are ineffective. Another prosecutor said that the system 'has no choice' but to ship offenders to prison.

"Because of the restricted sentencing options," the authors continued, "prosecutors and judges try to avoid treating these drug cases as felonies, especially for first-time offenders. 'People charged with small amounts of possession usually are dismissed because of the number of cases,' notes one prosecutor, 'and those are the cases that should be getting treatment alternatives.' There is also a strong incentive for defendants to plead guilty to drug charges to avoid harsh minimum sentences. Even though reduced charges in drug cases may allow for probation instead of jail
time, many offenders fail probation because the system does not provide the supervision and rehabilitation needed to return them to productive society. One former probation officer told us, 'adult probation that provides only one unsupervised check-in is useless as a way to give real services.' Judges vary as to whether they enforce the conditions of probation. Probation cannot work without a well-funded, consistently applied program."

Noting that many drug offenders can be rehabilitated and arguing that their potential value as productive members of society merits more flexibility, the report made the following recommendations:

  • Increase funding for and oversight of the probation system.
  • Expand the use of private, community-based organizations for supervised, rehabilitative probation.
  • Redefine young, nonviolent offenders as a "post juvenile" category of defendants.
  • Expunge criminal record after successful completion of probation.
  • Create up to four new drug courts with a focus on diversion/treatment programs.
  • Facilities are needed with courtrooms dedicated exclusively to narcotics cases in which the defendants are eligible for diversion and cases involving mental health issues.
  • Create, through legislation, a station adjustment model for dealing with possession of small amounts of controlled substances. [Editor's Note: A "station adjustment" allows police to handle a matter without involving the court system, i.e. with a warning or a referral to a treatment program.]
  • The drug school concept, operated on a deferred prosecution basis by the State's Attorney's Office, should be expanded. The Juvenile Drug School Program, eliminated due to budget constraints, should be re-established.
  • Increase training for defense counsel, prosecutors, and judges about the availability of diversion and treatment programs.
  • In creating legislation, attention should be paid to replacing mandatory minimum jail sentences with treatment and rehabilitation alternatives.

Chicago area judges, politicians, and legislators have expressed interest in the report and its findings. Whether that interest holds past the next news cycle remains to be seen. In the meantime, the wheels of justice grind on in the City of Big Shoulders, but just barely.

Sentencing: New Jersey Moves to Shrink "Drug-Free Zones," Cops Protest

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), all 21 county prosecutors, and the state sentencing commission all agree that the Garden State's drug-free zone law is ineffective, racially unbalanced and should be amended, but some New Jersey law enforcement officials disagree. While Corzine and his allies want to cut back on the drug-free zones, these police officials are pushing for even stiffer penalties.

Under current New Jersey law, anyone caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of a park, public building, or public housing is subject to increased penalties, including mandatory minimum sentences. Under the proposal presented by the state and embodied in a pending bill, A2877, the drug-free zones would be cut back to 200 feet, sentences would be increased for sales within the zones, but the mandatory minimum sentences would be dropped.

Drug-free zones became popular as a law enforcement tool designed to protect kids from drug dealers, but as the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing pointed out in a 2005 report and again in a supplemental report this year, the zones cover huge swathes of urban New Jersey, effectively submitting black and brown city dwellers to much more severe penalties than those faced by their white suburban or rural counterparts. According to the commission, 96% of people jailed under the law are black or Hispanic.

The drug-free zone laws had another pernicious effect as well: Although they did not stop drug dealing within the zones, they did result in stiff mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted. Selling a bag of weed in the zone got you a year in prison, while selling a rock of crack got you three years. As a result, more defendants fought their cases, clogging the courts with low-level drug dealers.

In addition to clogging the courts, prosecutors also complained that the mandatory minimums meant there was little wiggle room for plea deals, leaving them without cooperating witnesses to make further drug cases. As a result, prosecutors have effectively ditched the mandatory minimums for anyone who would accept a plea bargain. Now, only those who contest their charges in court and lose are hit with the mandatory minimums.

But while the governor, the prosecutors, and the sentencing commission want to further reform the drug-free zone law, some police want to go in the opposite direction. "Leave it at 1,000 feet," said Rahway Police Chief John Rodger. "And increase the penalty in the 200-foot zone," he told the Home News Tribune this week.

Still, Rodger conceded that he could not recall any drug deals taking place in or near schoolyards, a sentiment shared by veteran Middlesex County Prosecutor Caroline Meuly. The drug-free zone law has "a laudable goal," she said, "but I can't think of any (criminal case) file where people have sold to children or targeted them."

Reforming New Jersey's drug-free zone law as Corzine and crew suggest would be an improvement, but it would still be aimed primarily at low-level urban minority drug dealers. Better to limit it to cases of actual sales of drugs to youths, or repeal it outright.

Death Penalty: Malaysia to Execute Man for Marijuana, China to Execute Man for Meth

Even as the UN General Assembly voted this week for a death penalty moratorium, two Asian nations were once again exercising the ultimate sanction against drug offenders. In Malaysia, a man faces death for less than two pounds of marijuana, while in China, a man has been sentenced to death for trafficking in methamphetamine.

In Malaysia, Razali Ahmad, 33, was found guilty of trafficking marijuana Tuesday after police searched his house and found 858 grams. In Malaysia, the charge of trafficking carries an automatic death sentence.

Meanwhile, a Chinese court Monday sentenced Hao Chen to death for being a ringleader in a meth trafficking organization in southern Guandong Province. Five other ring members were sentenced to terms ranging from 15 years to life. The sentences were for trafficking about three pounds of meth.

In addition to the UN General Assembly's condemnation of the death penalty in general, the use of the death penalty against drug offenders has generated a campaign by harm reductionists to end such practices. Look for an in-depth report on all of this in the coming weeks.

Feature: Pressure Mounts on Congress As Supreme Court, Sentencing Commission Both Act to Cut Crack Cocaine Sentences

Both the US Supreme Court and the US Sentencing Commission acted this week to redress inequities in the sentencing of federal crack cocaine defendants, but changes in sentencing will be only marginal unless Congress acts to amend or undo the minimum sentences it has mandated for crack. Several bills to do so are pending, but Congress has yet to act on them.

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Karen Garrison, with picture of sons Lawrence & Lamont, innocent students convicted for crack and powder cocaine conspiracy (picture from sentencingproject.org)
Still, the harsh crack cocaine sentencing policies that have been in place for more than two decades took a one-two punch this week. On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a sentencing decision by a federal district court judge to sentence a crack defendant to a sentence well below the federal sentencing guidelines. The following day, the Sentencing Commission announced that its earlier decision to scale down crack sentences would apply to nearly 20,000 federal inmates doing time on crack charges.

In the Supreme Court, the justices voted 7-2 to allow federal judges discretion to sentence offenders to prison terms well below the punishment range set by federal sentencing guidelines. The ruling came in a pair of cases, Kimbrough v. US and Gall v. US. The decisions offer important guidance to federal judges who have been wrestling with sentencing issues since the Supreme Court in 2005 held that federal sentencing guidelines were no longer mandatory, but only advisory.

In the first case, the trial judge sentenced convicted crack dealer Derrick Kimbrough to 10 years for his drug offense even though the guidelines called for a 14-to-17 1/2 year sentence. That judge called the guidelines "ridiculous" and "clearly inappropriate" when applied to Kimbrough. A federal appeals court in Richmond vacated the sentence, declaring that a sentence so far beneath the guidelines was unreasonable. But the Supreme Court disagreed.

"The district court properly homed in on the particular circumstances of Kimbrough's case and accorded weight to the Sentencing Commission's consistent and emphatic position that the crack/powder disparity is at odds with [the federal sentencing law]," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority.

In her opinion in Kimbrough, Justice Ginsburg noted the ongoing controversy over the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity -- it takes 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger mandatory minimum sentences -- and wrote that judges could keep that in mind when sentencing crack defendants. "Given all this," she wrote, "it would not be an abuse of discretion for a district court to conclude when sentencing a particular defendant that the crack/powder disparity yields a sentence greater than necessary."

In the second case, Brian Gall had been sentenced to probation for his role in an ecstasy distribution ring while he was a college student. The judge in the case cited Gall's brief participation in the scheme and his law-abiding life since then in departing from the sentencing guidelines, which called for three years in prison. That sentence was vacated by a federal appeals court in St. Louis, which held that Gall's punishment was unreasonably light. The sentencing judge must show extraordinary circumstances to justify such a sentence, the appeals court held. That's not necessary, the Supreme Court held.

"An appellate court may take the degree of variance into account and consider the extent of deviation from the guidelines, but it may not require 'extraordinary' circumstances or employ a rigid mathematical formula," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.

The appeals court "failed to give due deference to the district court's reasoned and reasonable sentencing decision," Stevens wrote.

Taken together, the two Monday decision create a new, tougher standard for appeals courts to overturn judges' sentencing decisions. Now, the appeals court must find that a particular sentence is unreasonable and that the judge abused his or her discretion in evaluating the factors that led to that sentence.

"The cases are the clearest and strongest rulings to date that federal trial judges can exercise their discretion to take their sentencing responsibilities seriously again," said Carmen Hernandez, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense lawyers (NACDL). "There is no doubt left that an inappropriate guidelines calculation is open to challenge -- individually, as imposed in a particular case, and categorically, where the Commission has not followed Congress' command that a sentence be 'sufficient, but not greater than necessary.'"

"At a time of heightened public awareness regarding excessive penalties and disparate treatment within the justice system, today's ruling affirming judges' sentencing discretion is critical," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "Harsh mandatory sentences, particularly those for offenses involving crack cocaine, have created unjust racial disparity and excessive punishment for low-level offenses."

"This decision makes it clear that federal judges have a right to vote their conscience and ignore sentencing guidelines that are racist, unfair or cruel," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The ruling will reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system and hopefully send a message to federal prosecutors that they should stop wasting resources on nonviolent, low-level crack cocaine offenders and focus on taking down organized crime syndicates instead."

On Tuesday, it was the Sentencing Commission's turn to take a whack at crack sentences. In November, the commission amended the crack sentencing guidelines to reduce average sentences from 10 years and one month to eight years and 10 months, but a key question for activists, reformers, and prisoners and their families was whether the change in the guidelines would be retroactive. On Tuesday, the commission announced they would be.

"Retroactivity of the crack cocaine amendment will become effective on March 3, 2008," the commission said. "Not every crack cocaine offender will be eligible for a lower sentence under the decision. A federal sentencing judge will make the final determination of whether an offender is eligible for a lower sentence and how much that sentence should be lowered. That determination will be made only after consideration of many factors, including the Commission's direction to consider whether lowering the offender's sentence would pose a danger to public safety. In addition, the overall impact is anticipated to occur incrementally over approximately 30 years, due to the limited nature of the guideline amendment and the fact that many crack cocaine offenders will still be required under federal law to serve mandatory five- or ten-year sentences because of the amount of crack involved in their offense."

"At its core, this question is one of fairness," said one commission member, Judge William K. Sessions III of the United States District Court in Vermont. "This is an historic day. This system of justice is, and must always be, colorblind."

With retroactivity, some 19,500 currently imprisoned crack offenders will be able to apply for sentence reductions. According to the commission, eligible prisoners can expect an average sentence reduction of 17%, and some 3,800 prisoners will be eligible for but not assured of release by the end of 2008. But, the commission emphasized, reductions will ultimately be up to sentencing judges, who will have wide discretion in deciding who will be granted leniency.

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was pleased with the commission's action. "Nearly 20,000 nonviolent, low-level drug offenders will be eligible for a reduction in the excessive prison terms they received in the past because of the unacceptable disparity in the sentencing guidelines between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses," Kennedy said. "Those who break the law deserve to be punished, but our system says that punishment must be proportionate and fair. The current sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is neither."

"The Sentencing Commission made the tough but fair decision to remedy injustice, showing courage and leadership in applying the guideline retroactively. Clearly, justice should not turn on the date an individual is sentenced," said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Retroactivity of the crack guideline not only affects the lives of nearly 20,000 individuals in prison but that of thousands more -- mothers, fathers, daughters and sons -- who anxiously wait for them to return home," said Stewart.

But while both the Supreme Court and the Sentencing Commission have acted to reduce the harsh and disparate sentences meted out to crack offenders, congressionally-imposed mandatory minimum sentences for such offenses mean that these actions will only have a marginal impact on the length of sentences and the federal prison population. Only Congress can adjust those mandatory minimum sentences.

As one commission member, Judge Ruben Castillo of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, noted, the commission has recommended since 1995 that Congress act to redress the sentencing disparity. "No one has come before us to justify the 100-to-1 ratio," Judge Castillo said, referring to the provision of federal law that imposes the same 10-year minimum sentence for possessing 50 grams of crack and for possessing 5,000 grams of powder cocaine.

Four bills have been introduced in Congress to reduce the crack/powder cocaine disparity -- two by Democrats and two by Republicans. Two of the bills, introduced by Republican Senators Jeff Sessions from Alabama and Orrin Hatch from Utah, reduce the disparity but do not eliminate it. The third bill, introduced by Democratic Senator Joe Biden from Delaware, would completely eliminate the disparity. The Senate is expected to have hearings on the legislation in February. Democratic Representative Charles Rangel from New York has introduced the only bill on the House side that would eliminate the disparity by equalizing the sentences for crack and powder cocaine at the current level of powder. The Senate is set to have hearings on the issue early next year. No hearings have been scheduled in the House, and supporters of eliminating the disparity say House Democrats are ignoring the issue.

"The biggest obstacle to eliminating the racist crack/powder disparity is not the Bush Administration or law enforcement, it's the House Democratic leadership," said Piper, who noted that House Democratic leaders had reportedly barred committees from dealing with the issue. "While the Supreme Court, the Sentencing Commission and Senate Democrats and Republicans push forward with reform, House Democrats won't even have hearings on the issue. Their silence on this issue is sending a signal to communities across the country that they don't care about reducing racial disparities."

Death Penalty: Vietnam In Death Sentence Frenzy, 35 Condemned for Drugs in Past Two Weeks

A Vietnamese court sentenced eight people to death for smuggling heroin Wednesday, bringing to 35 the number of people sent to death row for drug trafficking offenses in the past two weeks. This week's death sentences came only days after 11 people were sentenced to death November 29 and four more sentenced to death November 30.

In the most recent case, 26 people were convicted of trafficking 50 kilograms of heroin over an eight-year period, and eight, including the ringleader, a 35-year-old woman, were given the ultimate sanction. Eight others received life sentences, and the rest were jailed for between 15 and 20 years.

In the November 29 case, the Hanoi People's Court sentenced 11 people to death for trafficking 440 kilos of heroin in Vietnam and China, while seven more got life in prison. Others got 20-year sentences. In the November 30 case, a court in the central province of Nghe An sentenced four more people to death and three others to life for trafficking an unspecified amount of heroin.

Southeast Asia and the Middle East are the regions where the death penalty is most frequently inflicted for drug trafficking offenses. Now, Vietnam appears to be making a bid to be the undisputed champion in killing drug offenders. (That, however, didn't stop Iran from hanging four this week too.)

U.S. Sentencing Commission Approves Crack Reform for Federal Prisoners

[Courtesy of The Sentencing Project] The day after the Supreme Court affirmed a judge's decision to sentence below the guideline range based on the unfairness of the crack cocaine sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission today voted unanimously to make retroactive its recent guideline amendment on crack cocaine offenses. The USSC's decision now makes an estimated 19,500 persons in prison eligible for a sentence reduction averaging more than two years. Releases are subject to judicial review and will be staggered over 30 years. The Sentencing Project applauds the USSC for responding at this heightened time of public awareness about excessive penalties and disparate treatment within the justice system. "The Commission's decision marks an important moment not only for the 19,500 people retroactivity will impact, but for the justice system as a whole," stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. "Today's action, combined with the Court's decision yesterday, restores a measure of rationality to federal sentencing while also addressing the unconscionable racial disparities that the war on drugs has produced." The Sentencing Project estimates that once the sentencing change is fully implemented, there will be a reduction of up to $1 billion in prison costs. Because African Americans comprise more than 80% of those incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses, the sentencing reform will also help reduce racial disparity in federal prisons. The Commission sets the advisory guideline range that federal judges use when sentencing defendants. In May the Commission recommended statutory reforms and proposed to Congress an amendment to decrease the guideline offense level for crack cocaine offenses. The amendment went unchallenged by Congress and went into effect on November 1st. The Commission's action today makes that guideline change retroactive to persons sentenced prior to November 1st. The guideline changes do not affect the mandatory minimum penalties that apply to crack cocaine, which can only be addressed through Congressional action. "Justice demands that Congress take the next step and eliminate the harsh mandatory minimums for low-level crack cocaine offenses," said Mauer. The Commission's vote comes a day after the United States Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Kimbrough v. United States that a federal district judge's below-guideline sentencing decision based on the unfairness of the 100 to 1 quantity disparity between powder and crack cocaine was permissible. In June, Sen. Joseph Biden introduced the Drug Sentencing Reform and Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007, legislation which would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Biden's bill, S. 1711, aims to shift federal law enforcement's focus from street-level dealers towards high-level traffickers.
Location: 
Washington, DC
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A Few Pardons Today -- Meanwhile the Pardon Attorney's Web Site Hasn't Been Updated Since the Clinton Administration

In addition to the good news about the crack sentencing reductions being retroactive, another piece of modest good news is that Pres. Bush granted some clemencies, including a few drug offenders. Via the Associated Press and CNN:
  • Jackie Ray Clayborn, of Deer, Arkansas, sentenced in 1993 to five months in prison, two years of supervised release and $3,000 in fines on marijuana charges.
  • John Fornaby, of Boynton Beach, Florida, convicted in 1991 of conspiring to distribute cocaine. He served three years in prison.
  • Bush cut short the 1992 prison sentence of crack cocaine dealer Michael Dwayne Short of Hyattsville, Maryland, who will be released on February 8 after serving 15 years of his 19-year sentence.
Let's include this one too, just to keep things in the holiday spirit (even though we don't oppose having reasonable regulations on legalized substances):
  • William James Norman of Tallahassee, Florida, convicted in 1970 for possessing and running an unregistered distillery that did not carry the proper signage and illegally produced alcoholic drinks made from mash. He was sentenced to three years probation.
Clemencies are a good thing, so I feel bad about using a negative-sounding headline. But it's important, because these few additional actions still leave George W. Bush far behind other presidential administrations in use of the pardon powers, even behind the pardon-parsimonious George Herbert Walker Bush. Interestingly -- and perhaps not coincidentally -- the US Pardon Attorney's office has not updated the sections of their web site listing clemency recipients and statistics since the end of the Clinton administration. They don't even include George W. Bush in the list of presidents. (I've saved copies of those two pages to prove it, in case they finally get around to updating those pages.) More importantly, we've heard from list members whose family members have clemency petitions in that not only have their loved ones not been released, they haven't even heard back from the office with any decision, not even a "no." If I remember correctly, FAMM has charged that the backlog in the office is literally in the thousands. Come on George, I've said it before, and I'm saying it again -- WE WANT PARDONS!!!!
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

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