Mandatory Minimums

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Senate Judiciary Committee Advances Smarter Sentencing Act

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday gave its imprimatur to the Smarter Sentencing Act, approving the bill and sending it on to a Senate floor vote. The bill is designed to reduce the federal prison population and decrease racial disparities and, if passed by Congress, would mark the biggest federal sentencing reform in decades.

The act, Senate Bill 1410, cuts mandatory minimum sentences for drug law violations, makes retroactive the crack cocaine sentencing reforms passed in 2010, and gives judges greater discretion to sentence below mandatory minimums when the facts of the case warrant it.

The act was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of senators from across the political spectrum, including Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

"The tide has turned against punitive drug policies that destroy lives and tear families apart," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites, there is now consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers."

The sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) also welcomed the bill's progress, but said that it was not happy with some changes included as the bill made its way through the committee.

"We strongly support the underlying bill; however, we have deep concerns about changes made during markup. These changes include new mandatory minimums for domestic violence and sexual abuse that are unjustified and opposed by the very victims they are supposed to protect," the group noted.

"Although FAMM would prefer the total repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, this bill is a necessary compromise that will help address many of the drivers of our exploding prison populations. The reform package is bipartisan, reasonable, and will save taxpayers billions of dollars by locking up fewer nonviolent drug offenders for shorter periods of time. It also focuses on over-criminalization, a monster that no one has been able to get a handle on, but one that must be brought under control."

While the bill has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, companion legislation is languishing in the Republican-controlled House. House Bill 3382, sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and 15 cosponsors, is currently before the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). Advocates are calling on Goodlatte, who helped establish a House Over-Criminalization Task Force last year, to move on the Smarter Sentencing Act.

"Seven of the 10 members of the Over-Criminalization Task Force currently support mandatory minimum sentencing reform, and all of the Task Force members have shown interest in getting a handle on our enormous criminal code," said FAMM's Julie Stewart. "The interest is there, and the time is right -- this is something that Congress could actually do this year."

The favorable Senate Judiciary Committee vote -- it passed 13-5 -- came even as federal prosecutors came out in opposition to it. In a Monday letter to Attorney General Holder, the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys opposed reforms to mandatory minimums.

"We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction," the organization said. "Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving."

That sparked a tough rebuke from the Drug Policy Alliance.

"It is disgraceful that prosecutors continue to defend a criminal justice system that is profoundly racially unjust and cruel," said Piper. "While support for major reform is growing in both political parties, many prosecutors are still living in the dark ages."

Washington, DC
United States

Smarter Sentencing Act Passes Senate Judiciary Committee

The Smarter Sentencing Act has just passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, we have learned -- and with a wide (and bipartisan) 13-5 margin.

As before, see our Twitter page for some of the on-site reports.

Good news -- more hopefully to come soon.

Chronicle AM -- January 29, 2014

Superbowl-linked banners chiding the NFL on marijuana policy go up, drug testing of students, workers, and welfare recipients is in the news, a federal sentencing reform bill picks up support, Guatemalan peasants pick up rocks and sticks to chase off eradicators, and more. Let's get to it:

MPP's Superbowl billboards take advantage of the hoopla to challenge the NFL.
Marijuana Policy

Obama's State of the Union Remarks on Marijuana Policy. Sorry, there weren't any. Nor did he speak about sentencing reform or any other aspect of drug policy.

Superbowl Banners Chide NFL on Marijuana Hypocrisy. The Marijuana Policy Project has launched a billboard blitz on the NFL, using five billboards around MetLife Stadium, where the game will be played Sunday, to highlight the hypocrisy of the leagues' marijuana policy. The group also delivered a petition with more than 12,000 signatures to league headquarters in New York City Wednesday calling on the league to stop punishing players for using pot.

Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll Has Support for Legalization at 55%. Yet another poll is out showing majority support for marijuana legalization. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has it at 55%. Click on the link for more details.

Nevada Legalization Advocates Focus on 2015. Nevada marijuana activists are crafting language for an initiative to legalize the herb with an eye on gathering enough signatures this year and next to put the measure before the state legislature. If the legislature then fails to approve it, it would go before the voters in 2016.

Medical Marijuana

Connecticut Announces Selection of First Medical Marijuana Producers. State officials Tuesday announced that four applicants have been chosen as the first-ever producers of medical marijuana to serve the needs of seriously ill patients in Connecticut. Each of the four businesses now must establish escrow arrangements in the amount of $2 million, and pay their annual license fee, at which time their operating license will be issued. Producers must be operational within 180 days of licensure. Additional information about the licensed producers will be made available in the near future.

Harm Reduction

10th Annual National Harm Reduction Conference Set for Baltimore in October. This is the nation's largest annual harm reduction event. Click on the link for all the details.

Drug Testing

New Jersey School District Abandons Random Student Drug Testing Bid. The Northern Valley Regional School District has given up its effort to impose random drug testing on students involved in extracurricular activities. After a year of debate, with many parents fiercely opposing the plan, the school board voted it down 5-4.

Maine Workplace Drug Testing Bill Under Consideration. A bill backed by conservative Republican Gov. LePage and the state Department of Labor is designed to encourage an expansion of drug testing by private employers. Legislative Document 1669 would remove the current provision that requires employers to maintain an employee assistance program and pay for half the costs of drug treatment. The bill would also make it easier for employers to identify potential drug abuse by creating a probable standard for testing that could be triggered by a single accident within the workplace. The bill is opposed by labor unions and the ACLU of Maine, which calls it a serious invasion of employee privacy.

Indiana Welfare Drug Testing Bill Passes House. A welfare drug testing bill easily passed the Republican-dominated House Tuesday. House Bill 1351 would require welfare applicants to take a written test that measures their propensity to use drugs. Those whom the test says are likely to be drug users would be required to undergo drug testing. Persons who fail the drug test could keep their benefits, provided they undergo drug treatment. But, as bill critic Rep. Vanessa Summers (D-Indianapolis) pointed out, the state doesn't offer low-cost drug treatment. The bill now goes to the state Senate.

Sentencing Reform

Federal Smarter Sentencing Act Picks Up More Supporters. The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, which would reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, give judges more discretion to sentence beneath the mandatory minimums, and apply retroactive sentence reductions to some crack cocaine offenders, has picked up more support this year. It was introduced with two cosponsors, Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Angus King, Jr (I-ME) came on board last fall, and Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) have joined as cosponsors this month. The link is to the bill itself.

International

Canada Opposing Harm Reduction Policies in UN Fight. In the fight over new guidelines for the global drug control regime at the United Nations, Canada is opposing efforts to place a stronger emphasis on harm reduction measures. Drug policy groups monitoring the negotiations say Canada has joined ranks with China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Russia in aggressively opposing European endorsements of health policies aimed at reducing harms, such as HIV transmission, among drug users. Canada also opposes the participation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in future UN drug policymaking sessions. "The Government of Canada believes that the best way to address the public health consequences of injection drug-use is to prevent people from using illicit drugs in the first place," said a Canadian government spokesperson, refusing to elaborate further.

Guatemalan Peasants Attack Opium Poppy Eradicators. Scores of opium-growing peasants in a community near the Mexican border attacked a national police contingent sent out to eradicate their crops Monday. Indian peasants in Tajumulco blocked the way and threw rocks, sticks and incendiary bombs at the contingent to stop it from reaching the croplands. Three police officers were injured, but police said they would continue eradication efforts. Last month, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina floated the idea of legalizing the poppy crop.

No Marijuana Decriminalization for Guyana, Home Affairs Minister Says. Guyanese Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee Tuesday shot down any talk of liberalizing the country's marijuana laws. "As we speak at this point in time, at twenty minutes to five, on the twenty-eighth day of January, the position and the policy of the government of Guyana is to pursue a zero tolerance policy in respect of trafficking in narcotics, possession of narcotics and any other form of activity in respect of drugs that are deemed illegal according to the laws of our country and according to the treaties and conventions of an international nature which we have signed on to," the Home Affairs Minister declared.

Jamaican Government Still Scared of Western Opposition to Marijuana Reform. Foreign Affairs Minister AJ Nicholson warned Monday that Jamaica must proceed cautiously with calls to decriminalize or legalize marijuana because of fears of violating global drug control treaties and offending the US and European countries. "There is no consideration at this time about changing the treaties, but there are still some concerns about how some Western countries would view our move towards decriminalize, depenalize or anything like that," he said.

Filipino Legislators Ponder Medical Marijuana. Minority lawmakers in the Philippines are considering medical marijuana. Rep. Rodolofo Albano III said that he planned on filing a bill in March that would permit the sale and purchase of cannabis strictly for medical use.

Chronicle AM -- January 27, 2014

Florida's medical marijuana initiative will go to the voters in November, the DEA administrator is being both jeered and cheered for her criticism of President Obama's remarks on marijuana, the Supreme Court makes it harder to punish drug dealers for deaths related to their wares, and much more. Let's get to it:

Drug War Chronicle takes no position on the game.
Marijuana Policy

DEA Head Criticizes Obama Marijuana Remarks, Faces Calls to be Ousted. DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart last week got a standing ovation from a convention of sheriffs when she criticized President Obama's remarks on the relative safety of marijuana compared with alcohol. But now, drug reformers are calling for her head.

Colorado and Washington NORML in Superbowl "Bud Bowl" Challenge. The contenders in Sunday's NFL Superbowl game, the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, both come from states where marijuana is legal. In honor of their hometown teams and their respective states' legal marijuana status, NORML chapters in Washington and Colorado have engaged in a friendly wager. If the Denver Broncos win, WA NORML has agreed to dress in Bronco colors of blue and orange and sing Karaoke-style Colorado's (second) official state song "Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver. If the Seattle Seahawks win, CO NORML will do the same, but in Seahawk blue and green and singing "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix, a native son of Seattle. [Ed: StoptheDrugWar.org has no position on either the game or the wager.]

New Jersey State Senator Announces Plans to Introduce Marijuana Legalization Bill. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D) said late last week that he plans to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana. The bill is not yet filed, but envisions language that would tax and regulate marijuana like alchohol.

Harris County (Houston) DA Says Decriminalize It. Responding to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) remarks last week in Davos that he supported decriminalization of marijuana possession, Harris County DA Devon Anderson said she agrees with his call for decriminalization.

Seattle City Attorney Wants More Marijuana Stores. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes last Thursday reiterated his request that the Washington State Liquor Control Board increase the number of marijuana retail stores allowed in the city. The board has set the number at 21, but Holmes has said that is not going to be enough.

Oregon Marijuana Legalization Referendum Bill Filed. State Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-District 4) and several cosponsors have introduced Senate Bill 1556, which would legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana possession and commerce for adults. If passed by the legislature, the measure would then go before voters on the November ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Supreme Court Approves Medical Marijuana Initiative -- It's Going to the Voters! The Florida Supreme Court Monday removed the final obstacle to the state's medical marijuana initiative appearing on the November ballot. It rejected a challenge to the measure's language by Attorney General Pam Bondi (R). The initiative has already had enough signatures validated to qualify. Click on the link to read the opinion and the text of the initiative.

Guam Medical Marijuana Bill Now Calls for Referendum. Sen. Tina-Muna Barnes, sponsor of medical marijuana Bill 215, announced Monday that she has rewritten the bill "to allow for a referendum, thus placing the question before the People of Guam in the 2014 General Election." She made the change, she said, because "the overwhelming majority of senators from both parties felt that an issue of this importance should be decided by the people directly."

Medical Marijuana Dispensary Licenses Set To Be Awarded In Massachusetts. The state Department of Public Health says it hopes to award up to 35 medical marijuana dispensary licenses this week. More than a hundred applications have been submitted. State law allows up to five dispensaries in each county in the state.

Drug Testing

Bangor (PA) School District Wants Random Drug Tests for Teachers. A policy that would make the Bangor Area School District the only one in the state to require random, suspicionless drug testing of teachers is part of negotiations for a new union contract. The contract being discussed wouldn't impose random drug testing, but would require teachers to put it to a vote. The issue came to the fore in the area after a teacher died of a heroin overdose in the apartment of a wrestling coach in 2009.

Illinois Welfare Drug Testing Bill Introduced. State Rep. Dwight Kay (R-Glen Carbon) has introduced a bill that would require welfare applicants to undergo a drug test before becoming eligible to receive benefits. House Bill 4255 does not include an intermediary step of drug screening to determine which applicants are likely to be drug users, but goes straight to testing all applicants. The federal courts have found similar laws unconstitutional.

Sentencing

US Supreme Court Restricts Heroin Death Sentencing Enhancement. The US Supreme Court ruled Monday that a heroin dealer cannot be held liable for a customer's death if the heroin use was only a contributing factor and not necessarily the sole cause. Federal law imposes a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence when "death or serious injury results from the use" of an illegal drug, and prosecutors have used the statute to win the tough sentences, but the high court held Monday that prosecutors must prove that the drug was the specific cause of death, not just a contributing factor. The case is Burrage v. United States.

San Francisco Jail Population Dropping Because of Decrease in Drug Arrests. A report from the San Francisco board of supervisors' budget analysts says the jail population has dropped because of decreased drug arrests and city policies that promote alternatives to incarceration. The jail population is down 30% since 2008. The report comes as supervisors wrangle over whether the city needs a new jail and how big it should be.

Law Enforcement

DEA Busts Bitcoin Exchange CEO for Silk Road Money Laundering. Charlie Shrem, the CEO of BitInstant, a Bitcoin exchange, has been arrested by the DEA and is charged with money laundering for selling over $1 million in Bitcoins to users of the Silk Road dark web drug sales site, who used the currency to buy drugs there. Shrem faces federal money laundering charges. Shrem and an unnamed coconspirator were both charged. "Hiding behind their computers, both defendants are charged with knowingly contributing to and facilitating anonymous drug sales, earning substantial profits along the way," DEA agent James Hunt said in a release.

Virginia Bill to Criminalize "Secret Compartments" Filed. A bill introduced by state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) would make it a crime to knowingly have a secret compartment in a car -- even if there isn't anything in it. The bill, Senate Bill 234, makes having such a compartment a felony and defines a "false or secret compartment" as any enclosure that is integrated into or attached to a vehicle or vessel, the purpose of which is to conceal, hide, or prevent the discovery of a person, controlled substance, or other contraband.

International

Mexican President Invites Anti-Cartel Vigilantes to Join Security Forces. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said last Thursday that anti-cartel vigilantes or militias were a result of institutional weakness within national security forces and asked them to join those same security forces. He asked them to do "to do it by observing the principles and formalities of the law, fulfilling the requirements to become part of the security corps." The vigilantes are engaged in ongoing battles with the Knights Templar cartel in the state of Michoacan.

Dutch MP Calls on Government to Allow Marijuana Growing Pilot Projects. Labor MP Marith Rebel called last week for Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten to allow experiments with the legal production of marijuana. "Turning a blind eye to the fact the cafes are selling marijuana but not recognizing the fact they also have to buy it is helping criminals," Rebel said. Opstelten last month rejected calls from local councils to allow regulated grows, even though polls show majority support for the move.

New Zealand Greens Will Push for Marijuana Decriminalization, But Not Too Hard. New Zealand's Green Party says it will push for decriminalization in any post-election negotiations with Labor, but that the issue will not be a deal breaker. "I would like to progress a vast amount of our policy, and that would be one," said party coleader Metiria Turei. "We believe a drug-free lifestyle is the healthiest, but we don't believe people should be convicted of a crime, adults, if they smoke cannabis. So we still consider decriminalization is the wisest policy." But she also said the party had no bottom lines as it ponders the prospect of a coalition government with Labor.

The Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2013 [FEATURE]

Last year is receding in the rear view mirror, but before looking forward to the battles of 2014, let us take a moment to savor what was, overall, a pretty big year for drug reform on the domestic front. Unsurprisingly, marijuana makes up a lot of the news, but there were also signs that America's decades-long incarceration fever is breaking, and even though the impulse to scapegoat the downtrodden through public benefits drug testing remains strong, it doesn't really seem to be picking up much traction, and the year ended with suspicionless public benefits drug testing slapped down by a federal judge. Here are the highlights of 2013:

October Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on state marijuana legalization
#1 The Obama Administration Doesn't Try to Block State Marijuana Legalization

While the truly historic moments in US marijuana legalization -- the November 2012 election victories in Colorado and Washington and the commencement of legal marijuana sales in Colorado on Wednesday -- neatly bracketed 2013, history was being made by the Obama administration as well. The first presidency to deal with states voting to legalize marijuana for adults in direct contravention of federal law did so in a remarkably reasonable fashion: by largely getting out of the way. In August, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a three-page memorandum affirming that the US Justice Department would allow the two states to move forward with statewide efforts to license and regulate the adult marijuana market. Cole later reaffirmed the agency's position in testimony before the US Senate, stating, "We will not … seek to preempt state ballot initiatives."

#2 State Officials Don't Try to Block Marijuana Legalization Where Voters Approved It

Kudos are also due to legislators, elected officials, and functionaries in Colorado and Washington, who accepted the voters' choice to legalize marijuana with apparent good faith. The Washington state Liquor Control Board and Colorado legislators both came up with workable ways of implementing the will of the voters, while being careful to also heed the concerns of those worried about problems legalization could bring with it. Colorado's system rolled out this week and Washington's will come in a matter of months.

#3 Public Support for Marijuana Legalization in the US Reaches All-Time Highs

If 2012 was the year public opinion in favor of marijuana legalization reaching the tipping point, 2013 was the year it went over it. An October Gallup Poll had support for legalization a record-breaking 58% nationwide. That was in line with a number of other polls since the 2012 elections that showed support either above or just below 50%, depending on the pollster. The on-going sea change in public opinion has also been apparent in polls showing majority support not just where it might be expected, like California, but also where it isn't, like Louisiana and Texas, both of which reported late year majorities for legalization.

Capital City Care medical marijuana dispensary, Washington, DC
#4 The Advance of Medical Marijuana Continues

Bills legalizing medical marijuana passed in Illinois and New Hampshire, bringing the number of states that allow it to 20, along with the District of Columbia. Dispensaries opened for the first time in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. And bills that will allow dispensaries to open this year passed in Nevada and Oregon. About two dozen states saw medical marijuana legislation filed last year; expect a similar level of activity this year.

#5 The Number of State, But Not Federal, Prisoners in America Keeps On Declining

For the third year in a row, the number of people in prison in the US declined, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in July. (The figures are actually for year's end 2012, but the report came out in 2013, so here we are.). The figures do not include jail inmates. At the end of 2012, there were 1,571,013 prisoners in America, down 1.7% (or 27,770 inmates) from the previous year. Breaking down the numbers, that means that somewhere north of 330,000 people were serving time for drug crimes in US prisons at the end of last year, down from a record high of nearly half a million at the beginning of the century. The decline is because of shifts in sentencing policies in the states; the federal prison population kept expanding, although at a lower rate than over the past decade.

#6 Momentum for Sentencing Reform Grows in Washington

The clamor to do something about drug sentencing reverberated throughout the nation's capital in 2013. In August, Attorney General Holder announced an administration package of sentencing reforms, some of which could be enacted administratively, such as prosecutors not routinely resorting to mandatory minimum charging decisions, but others of which require congressional action. And while Congress didn't actually pass anything, it laid the groundwork for action next year. Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), an increasingly loud critic of mandatory minimums, allied himself with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, and similar legislation has been introduced in the House. In another sign of interest in sentencing reform, 10 members of the House Judiciary Committee formed an "over-criminalization" task force in May. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing in September to whip up support for their legislation and other sentencing reform bills, and the committee held a mark-up session on the bills in December. The stage appears set for real movement this year.

#7 "Defelonization" Emerges as a Sentencing Policy Option for States

Although, over the years, 13 states and the District of Columbia have moved to reduce incarceration burdens by treating simple drug possession offenses as misdemeanors instead felonies -- defelonization -- the idea got renewed impetus in 2013, especially on the West Coast. In California, a bill that would have allowed prosecutors the option of charging felony possession cases passed the legislature, and in Washington state, legislators and activists announced late last year that they would try to move a similar bill there this year. Unfortunately, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the defelonization bill, but as a result of that veto, the San Francisco DA and the San Diego police chief have filed a defelonization initiative. While 2013 was a building year for defelonization efforts, they could well bear fruit this year.

#8 A Tough Year for Public Benefits Drug Testing Bills

Legislation seeking to make public benefits beneficiaries pass drug tests continued to popular in Republican-dominated state legislatures in 2013, with bills introduced in at least 30 states, but by year's end, only a handful had actually passed, and all of those were "reasonable suspicion" bills instead of bills requiring mandatory, suspicionless drug testing. Drug testing bills passed in Kansas (welfare, unemployment), North Carolina (welfare, passed over the Republican governor's veto), Michigan (unemployment), and Texas (unemployment). But as the year went on, there was rising criticism of the cost of enforcing such legislation and the small number of actual drug users found in states that had previously passed similar bills, including Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah. And the last day of 2013 saw a federal judge throw out Florida's suspicionless welfare drug testing law as unconstitutional. The up side is that that ought to drive a stake through the heart of any more suspicionless drug testing bills; the down side is that legislators elsewhere have already figured that out, which is why all of the 2013 bills that passed were "reasonable suspicion" bills.

#9 Historic Firsts for Hemp

Not only were industrial hemp bills filed in both houses of Congress last year, but for the first time ever, the House passed a hemp production measure. The measure was an amendment to the farm bill, but unfortunately, the entire bill was defeated after Republicans attempted to attach drug testing provisions for food stamp recipients. A later version of the bill passed without the hemp amendment. Still, there is hope that the hemp amendment, which also had Republican support, will reemerge whenever the Senate and House meet in conference committee. Meanwhile, more states took up hemp legislation, with a bill passing Kentucky and another one passing in Colorado (as part of the implementation of Amendment 64). Hemp bills were also filed in California (approved in the state Senate), Missouri, New Jersey, and Vermont (as part of a broader legalization bill). And in November, a Colorado farmer oversaw the first hemp crop harvest since World War II., even though it remains illegal under federal law.

#10 Obama Exercises Clemency Power, Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Others

Just before year's end, President Obama granted clemency to eight crack cocaine offenders, bringing an early Christmas present to poster boy for drug war sentencing excess Clarence Aaron and seven other crack cocaine offenders. Aaron has served more than 20 years for his peripheral role in a cocaine conspiracy, and the others were serving equally onerous sentences. The commutations were a departure for the Obama administration, which has been the stingiest in recent presidential history when it comes to the pardon power. Before the pre-Christmas commutations, Obama had issued only one commutation, where someone currently serving a sentence is actually released from prison, and 39 pardons of people who had already been released, some of them decades ago.

Obama Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Other Crack Offenders [FEATURE]

The White House announced yesterday that President Obama had granted commutations to eight federal prisoners serving decades-long sentences for crack cocaine offenses, including poster boy for drug war excess Clarence Aaron, who has spent the last 20 years behind bars. The president also pardoned 13 former prisoners.

Finally, Clarence Aaron will go free.
"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," the president said. "But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all."

[Editor's Note: The Senate Judiciary Committee was marking up three sentencing reform bills this same day.]

Some sentencing reforms have been enacted since the harsh escalation of the drug war in the Reagan era, including the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. It was unfair to continue to let people languish serving sentences no longer applicable, Obama suggested.

"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," he said." Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."

The commutations are a departure for the Obama administration, which until now has been the stingiest in recent presidential history when it comes to the pardon power. Before today, Obama had issued only one commutation, where someone currently serving a sentence is actually released from prison, and 39 pardons of people who had already been released, some of them decades ago.

While all eight people whose sentences were commuted suffered for years under the impact of harsh federal sentencing laws racially biased in result if not, charitably, in intent, Clarence Aaron in particular has served as the face of the unjustly punished deserving of presidential mercy. Then a college student, the first-time, nonviolent drug offender was sentenced to three life sentences for a peripheral role in a cocaine deal in 1993.

A model prisoner, his case became widely known as a result of a PBS News Frontline special about the use of informants in drug cases. His case drew additional publicity when the investigative journalism consortium ProPublica documented problems with the Office of the Pardon attorney, using Aaron's more than a decade-long effort to obtain a pardon as Exhibit #1.

Aaron's reaction to the news was not surprising.

"He was just overcome," said his attorney, Margaret Love, herself a former US Pardon Attorney, who spoke with Aaron this morning shortly after he received the news. "We're very grateful to the president," she told ProPublica after the commutations were announced.

That all the commutations were for crack cocaine-related offenses, Love said, "says something very important about the long federal sentences for drug crimes. There are a lot of people in prison whose cases are similar to the ones being commuted."

The sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) said four of its supporters, including Aaron, had had their sentences commuted, but that there were many more who deserved to come home, too.

"Now that the president has opened the door to doing commutations, he might make it a more regular activity, and not just save it for the holidays or the end of his term," said FAMM president Julie Stewart. "He certainly has plenty of cases that he could choose from. I guess that time will tell."

Other sentencing and drug reform organizations were pleased and encouraged by the news, but joined FAMM and the president in calling for more.

ACLU deputy legal director Vanita Gupta chimed in, "President Obama today gave several Americans who were unnecessarily sentenced to die behind bars the chance to reunite with their families. This is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system. We hope the President will continue to exercise his clemency powers and lend his support to systemic reform that will make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more humane." A recent report by the ACLU on people serving life without parole sentences highlighted the cases of four of the people who received commutations this week -- Aaron, Stephanie George, Jason Hernandez, and Reynolds Wintersmith, Jr.

"It's wonderful news that Obama has granted clemency to these individuals. We hope this is the just the beginning of the President using his executive powers to right the wrongs of the criminal justice system," said Anthony Papa, media relations manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. "I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families."

"Through his actions today, the President has signaled his willingness to undertake needed reforms to the criminal justice system," said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of the Brennan Center for Justice Washington, DC, office. "For too long, harsh sentences and punitive policies have fed a system of mass incarceration in this country. A comprehensive effort, involving the Administration and Congress, is needed to solve this crisis and return balance to the scales of justice by creating a more rational, fair, and cost-effective criminal justice system."

"We commend the President on this right and just action. It shows bold and necessary leadership," said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "This marks a year in which the administration has taken great leadership on criminal justice issues. From the statements of Attorney General Holder to the American Bar Association in August, to the implementation of their policies, this shows a trajectory towards real justice in the criminal justice system."

The trajectory may be there, but take-off has yet to be achieved, several advocates warned.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said in a statement, "Until there is legislative action to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, these commutations are the only relief available to federal inmates and their families. But the administration can only do so much; it is up to Congress to address this systemic failure.

"Kudos to President Obama for commuting these eight people," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "But shame on the President for not commuting many more. With over 100,000 people still behind bars on nonviolent drug charges, clearly thousands more are deserving of the same freedom. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses."

And while the commutations are welcome, they are not the real solution, said FAMM's Stewart.

"Even if President Obama used his clemency power energetically, which he has not, he simply wouldn't be able to commute every excessive sentence," she said. "The sentencing laws themselves are the problem. Congress needs to get moving and pass mandatory minimums sentencing reforms that save the worst prison terms for the worst offenders," Stewart said. "We hope there will be even more commutations today, but it's only Congress that can prevent the need for commutations tomorrow."

Still, it is good that Clarence Aaron and a few others are going home.

Washington, DC
United States

Sentencing Bills Before Senate Judiciary Committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee will be working on a trio of sentencing reform bills Thursday. Committee Chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is attempting to create a comprehensive sentencing bill that will attract bipartisan support.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/patrick-leahy-200px.jpg
Pat Leahy
The three bills are the Smarter Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 1410), the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act (Senate Bill 1675), and the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).

The Smarter Sentencing Act expands mandatory minimum sentencing reform by making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive and reducing the length of many mandatory sentences by half.

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act would increase good time credits for rehabilitative programs, while the Justice Safety Valve Act would allow judges to sentence below mandatory minimums if certain circumstances are present.

The bills are backed by a broad coalition of civil rights, drug reform, and faith groups, as well as conservative and law enforcement and victim rights groups.

The hearing is set for 10:00am EDT Thursday. You can watch it online here.

Washington, DC
United States

Call Judiciary Committee Senators TODAY to End Harsh Drug Sentencing!

Update: The committee markup has been postponed until next week -- that means there's still time to call! (Calls needed from AL, AZ, CA, CT, DE, HI, IL, IA, MN, NY, RI, SC, TX, UT, VT.)

Dear friend,

  

Tomorrow -- Thursday, December 12 -- the US Senate Judiciary Committee will meet to discuss mandatory minimum sentencing and S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act. The Smarter Sentencing Act is a bipartisan bill sponsored by committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), which would allow federal judges to bypass the much-criticized mandatory minimum sentences, sparing thousands of nonviolent federal offenders from years or even decades of incarceration. The bill would also extend retroactive sentencing reductions to some federal crack prisoners who had already been sentenced before the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that reduced crack sentences was passed.

Today is a National Call-In Day for people who have Senators on the Judiciary Committee to call them in support of the bill. Please read the list of committee members below. If you live in one of the states that is on the list, please call the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to be transferred to the Senator's office. (If you are from Minnesota, Texas or Utah, you have two phone calls to make, as both of your Senators as on the Committee.) There is a phone script below that you can use as a guide for your call. When you are done, or if you are not from one of these states, please post this alert to your web sites or social media, or circulate them to people you know who are from any of these states.

  • Alabama: Sen. Jeff Sessions (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Arizona: Sen. Jeff Flake (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • California: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Connecticut: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Delaware: Sen. Christopher Coons (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Hawaii: Sen. Mazie Hirono (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Illinois: Sen. Richard Durbin (thank for sponsoring the bill)
  • Iowa: Sen. Charles Grassley (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Minnesota: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Minnesota: Sen. Al Franken (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • New York: Sen. Chuck Schumer (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Rhode Island: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (thank for sponsoring the bill)
  • South Carolina: Sen. Lindsey Graham (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Texas: Sen. John Cornyn (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Texas: Sen. Ted Cruz (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Utah: Sen. Orrin Hatch (urge to vote for S. 1410)
  • Utah: Sen. Mike Lee (thank for sponsoring the bill)
  • Vermont: Sen. Patrick Leahy (thank for sponsoring the bill)

Here is a script to use if your Senator is not a sponsor of S. 1410:
"I'm a constituent, and I'm calling to ask the Senator to vote in favor of mandatory minimum sentencing reform, including the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1410, at this Thursday's Judiciary Committee markup. The Senator should vote to reform mandatory minimums because they are unfair, expensive, and don't keep us safe. Thank you for considering my views."

And here is a script to use if your Senator is a sponsor of S. 1410:
"I'm a constituent, and I'm calling to thank the Senator for his support of mandatory minimum sentencing reform, including S. 1410, at this Thursday's Judiciary Committee markup. The Senate should vote to reform mandatory minimums because they are unfair, expensive, and don't keep us safe. Thank you for considering my views."

Thank you for taking action! Read our report about why this is such a promising time for sentencing reform, online here. And read more about the upcoming hearing here.

Sincerely,

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org
Washington, DC
http://stopthedrugwar.org

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- December 5, 2013

Busy, busy on the marijuana policy front today, and there is also medical marijuana news, a new report on coerced federal plea bargains, a call for call-ins to the Senate on mandatory minimums next week, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Possession Legal in Portland, Maine, As of Tomorrow, But... The voter-approved ordinance legalizing the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana by people 21 and over goes into effect Friday. But tokers beware: The police chief says he is going to continue to enforce state law, which is stricter. Maine is a decriminalization state, so getting caught with a small amount of pot will still get you a fine.

Legalization Initiative Filed in Missouri. The Missouri marijuana reform group Show-Me Cannabis Regulation has filed an initiative that would amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana. Petitioners will have to collect signatures from about 320,000 registered voters by May 4 to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.

Washington State Marijuana Business Applications Surpass 1,300. Lots of people want to get into the legal marijuana business in Washington state. Regulators there are reviewing over 1,300 applications and there are still two weeks left for people to apply. More than 600 have applied for commercial growing licenses, more than 450 to produce edibles, and 230 have applied to open retail outlets. Regulators will license up to 334 pot shops, and there is no limit to the number of growers or producers, although the state wants to limit production to two million square feet.

Seattle City Attorney Wants More Marijuana Stores. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said Wednesday that he has asked the State Liquor Control Board to allow at least 50 marijuana retail sales licenses to be issued in the city. The Board has proposed allowing only 21, but Holmes said that will not be enough to meet demand in the city.

Legalization Referendum Proposed for Dane County (Madison), Wisconsin. Dane County voters could vote on whether the state should legalize marijuana after a member of the county Board of Supervisors said he planned to introduce a measure that would ask them just that. The proposal has to pass the board, and if it does, voters would vote on a non-binding advisory referendum on the spring 2014 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Action on Medical Marijuana Bills Delayed in Michigan. The Associated Press reported Thursday that votes on pending medical marijuana bills are unlikely until next year, although it didn't say why. Still, hundreds of people jammed legislative committee rooms to voice their opinions on improving the state's medical marijuana law.

Hearing Today on Medical Marijuana in Buffalo. Legislators in New York held a public hearing to gain support for medical marijuana legislation in Buffalo Thursday. More than two dozen speakers were invited to testify about the proposed legislation. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), chair of the Assembly Health Committee, chaired the meeting.

Sentencing Reform

Call Your Senators on Mandatory Minimum Reform Next Tuesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next Thursday on mandatory minimum sentencing reform and the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1410. If passed, that bill would benefit thousands of nonviolent federal offenders facing mandatory minimum sentences (including some crack offenders who are already in federal prison). Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is urging people whose senators are on the committee to call in to voice their support next Tuesday. Click on the link for more details.

Human Rights Watch Report Condemns Forced Pleas in Federal Drug Cases. Human Rights Watch Thursday released a report condemning coercive plea bargaining by federal prosecutors in drug cases and calling for sentencing reform. The report is An Offer You Can't Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

International

Israeli Health Ministry Bill Would Expand Medical Marijuana Program. The Israeli Health Ministry is proposing legislation that would increase the number of doctors authorized to prescribe medical marijuana and allow it to be distributed through pharmacies. The ministry is resisting allowing even broader access.

British Drug Think-Tank Offers Guide to Marijuana Regulation. The British drug think-tank Transform Drug Policy Foundation has issued How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide for policy makers, drug policy reform advocates and affected communities all over the world, who are witnessing the question change from, "Should we maintain cannabis prohibition?" to "How will legal regulation work in practice?"

Human Rights Watch on Coerced Guilty Pleas in US Drug Cases

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/offer-you-cant-refuse.jpg
A report from Human Rights Watch released this morning demonstrates the corruption of justice that mandatory minimum sentencing has brought about. According to "An Offer You Can't Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Defendants to Plead Guilty," prosecutors commonly force drug defendants to plead to lengthy mandatory sentences in order to avoid losing their entire lives. Jamie Fellner of HRW writes:

"Prosecutors give drug defendants a so-called choice -- in the most egregious cases, the choice can be to plead guilty to 10 years, or risk life without parole by going to trial," said Jamie Fellner, senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Prosecutors make offers few drug defendants can refuse. This is coercion pure and simple."
 

In one case cited, Sandra Avery, a small-time drug dealer, declined to plea to 10 years for possession of 50 grams of crack with intent to deliver. Prior convictions she had for simple drug possession triggered a sentencing enhancement, at the prosecutor's behest, and Avery was sentenced to life without parole.

I think that very clearly constitutes a human rights violation, and we need to take this kind of power away from the officials who perpetrate such violations. One way to do that is by repealing mandatory minimum sentencing. There is a real chance of doing that, for the first time in a very long time, as a recent article we published shows. More on this coming soon.

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