Mandatory Minimums

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Sentencing: Supreme Court 2nd Amendment Decision May Provide Opening for Appeal in Case of Pot Dealer Doing 55 Years for Carrying Gun

Weldon Angelos was a Salt Lake City marijuana dealer and aspiring hip-hop recording label empresario when he was busted in 2003. The federal marijuana charge could have sent him to prison for five years, but prosecutors also hit him with three counts of using a gun during the commission of a crime because he carried a pistol in an ankle holster on one occasion, had one in his car on another, and had more guns at home.

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Weldon Angelos (via mpp.org)
Although Angelos was never accused of using or even brandishing a weapon, he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to a breathtaking mandatory minimum 55-year sentence on the gun charges. The federal judge who sentenced him said his hands were tied by mandatory minimum sentencing laws, forcing him to impose a sentence he called "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."

But now, in the wake of the US Supreme Court's pro-gun rights decision in District of Columbia et al. v. Heller, a well-known law professor and some collaborating attorneys are challenging Angelos' sentence. The high court's ruling should make it more difficult to add huge sentence enhancements simply because someone owns a gun, said Douglas Berman, a law professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University and author of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

Angelos appealed his draconian sentence, but a federal appeals court upheld it, and the Supreme Court declined to intervene. Now, Berman and company are seeking a new hearing to have his sentence overturned based on the Heller decision. No date has yet been set for that hearing.

"Most people think I'm crazy at first," Berman told the American Law Daily. "I'm fighting people on the left who think this guy's a bad person just because he touched a gun, and I'm fighting people on the right who like guns but don't like people like (Angelos) with guns. Heller says the Second Amendment has to mean something."

One attorney working on the case, Brian Heberlig, added that it was unfair to punish Angelos with an extra 25-year sentence "based solely on handguns passively stored in Angelos's home."

Some observers label the unique effort a long-shot, but for Weldon Angelos and others who, like him, are serving extra years or decades merely because they owned guns when they committed their drug offenses, it could be the only chance to ever see freedom again.

Feature: Drug Policy Reform and Sentencing Initiatives on the November Ballot

With election day little more than a month away, it is time for a round-up of drug policy reform initiatives facing voters in November. Not only are there a number of state-level initiatives dealing with marijuana decriminalization, medical marijuana, and sentencing reform (or its opposite), there are also a handful of initiatives at the county or municipal level.

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November 4th is coming up
But after a spate of drug reform initiatives beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing into the beginning of this decade, the pace has slowed this year. Of the 139 statewide initiatives identified by the Initiative and Referendum Institute as making the ballot this year, only seven have anything to do with drug reform, and four of those seek to increase sentences for various drug offenses.

Drug reformers have had an impressive run, especially with medical marijuana efforts, winning in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, and losing only in conservative South Dakota. Reformers also scored an impressive coup with California's "treatment not jail" initiative, Proposition 36, in 2002. At the municipal level, initiatives making adult marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority have won in cities across California; as well as Denver; Seattle; Missoula County, Montana; Eureka Springs, Arkansas; and Hailey, Idaho. Detroit and several smaller Michigan cities have also approved municipal medical marijuana initiatives.

One reason for the slow-down in reformers' resort to the initiative process is that, as Marijuana Policy Project assistant communications director Dan Bernath put it, "We've already grabbed all the low-hanging fruit."

While medical marijuana initiatives have had an impressive run, the remainder of the 22 initiative and referendum states -- Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming -- present a more difficult social and political terrain, in most cases. Running a successful initiative is also costly, said Bernath.

"Only half the states have initiatives, so there are only so many places where reformers can push them," he said. "And it is an expensive process that is often complicated. On the other hand, you don't have to rely on timid politicians. The voters are often way out in front of politicians on marijuana reform initiatives, and with an initiative, you don't have to worry about those timid politicians tinkering with your legislation and taking all the teeth out of it," Bernath noted. "As a general rule, I think most reformers would prefer to see something passed by the voters, that gives it a lot of legitimacy."

And that's just what reformers are trying to do with medical marijuana in Michigan and marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts this year, both of which appear poised to pass. Likewise, in California, reformers are seeking to expand and deepen Prop. 36, but they also face a pair of sentencing initiatives aimed at harsher treatment of drug offenders. And next door in Oregon, anti-crime crusaders also have a pair of initiatives aimed at punishing drug offenders -- among others.

Here's a rundown of the statewide drug reform and/or sentencing initiatives:

CALIFORNIA: It's the battle of the crime and sentencing initiatives, with Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA) going up against a pair of initiatives headed in the other direction. Building on the success (and limitations) of 2002's Prop. 36, Prop. 5 would expand the number of drug offenders diverted from prison into treatment, expand prison and parole rehabilitation programs, allow inmates earlier release for participating in such programs, and cut back the length of parole. It would also decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Led by the Drug Policy Alliance Southern California office, the Yes on Prop. 5 campaign has won broad support from drug treatment professionals, with the notable exception of drug court advocates. But it also faces opposition, not only from the drug court crew and the usual law enforcement suspects, but also actor Martin Sheen and several prominent newspaper editorial boards. No polls on Prop. 5's prospects have been released. See our earlier in-depth reporting on Prop. 5 here.

Proposition 6, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, is primarily aimed at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, but also includes provisions increasing penalties for methamphetamine possession, possession with intent, and distribution to be equal to those for cocaine, and provides for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. The measure also mandates increased spending for law enforcement. Read the California League of Women Voters' analysis of Prop. 6 here.

Proposition 9, also known as the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, unsurprisingly is concerned mostly with "victims' rights," but also includes provisions that would block local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the state fund corrections costs as much as necessary to accomplish that end. It would also lengthen the amount of time a prisoner serving a life sentence who has been denied parole must wait before re-applying. Currently, he must wait one to five years; under Prop. 9, he must wait three to 15 years. Prop. 9 would also allow parolees who have been jailed for alleged parole violations to be held 15 days instead of the current 10 before they are entitled to a hearing to determine if they can be held pending a revocation hearing, and stretches from 35 to 45 the number of days they could be held before such a hearing. These last two provisions, as well as one limiting legal counsel for parolees, all conflict with an existing federal court order governing California's procedures. Read the California League of Women Voters' analysis of Prop. 9 here.

Ironically, both "tough on crime" initiatives have received significant funding and support from Henry Nicholas, the co-founder and former CEO of Broadcom. Nicholas has reportedly contributed at least $5.9 million to the initiatives. That was before he was indicted in June on federal fraud and drug charges. His indictment alleges that he kept properties for drug parties, supplied methamphetamine and cocaine to friends and prostitutes, and spiked technology executives' drinks with Ecstasy.

MASSACHUSETTS: The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy is sponsoring an initiative that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Known as Question 2 on the November ballot, the initiative builds on nearly a decade's worth of work by local activists who ran dozens of successful ballot questions directed at individual representatives. Question 2 looks like almost a sure winner; it garnered 72% support in a mid-August poll. Still, late-organizing opposition has formed, primarily from the usual suspects in law enforcement and prosecutors' offices. See our earlier analysis of Question 2 here.

MICHIGAN: Michigan is poised to become the first medical marijuana state in the Midwest. An initiative sponsored by the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care and appearing on the ballot as Proposition 1 would allow patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, MS and other conditions as may be approved by the Department of Community Health to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. It would require the department to create an ID card system for qualified patients and their designated caregivers and would allow patients and caregivers to grow small amounts of marijuana indoors in a secure facility. It would also permit both registered and unregistered patients and caregivers to assert a medical necessity defense to any prosecution involving marijuana. A poll released this week showed the measure gaining the approval of 66% of voters. Read our earlier analysis of the initiative and campaign here.

OREGON: While medical marijuana activists are working on a dispensary initiative for 2010, perennial Oregon "crime fighter" Kevin Mannix is once again looking to throw more people in prison. Ballot Measure 61, "Mandatory Sentences For Drug Dealers, Identity Thieves, Burglars, And Car Thieves," is pretty self-explanatory. It would impose mandatory minimum sentences for the manufacture or delivery of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine of 36 months in some cases and 30 months in others. It also lays out similar mandatory minimums for the other criminal offenders listed above. Mannix originally included a provision attempting to supplant the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, but dropped it when it became apparent it could drag down the entire initiative.

Another measure initiated by the legislature and referred to the voters, Ballot Measure 57, would also increase penalties for the sale or distribution of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy. It sets a sentencing range of 34 months to 130 months, depending on the quantity of the drug involved. The measure would also require drug treatment for certain offenders and impose sanctions for those who resist, provide grants to local jurisdictions for jails, drug courts, and treatment services, and limit judges' ability to reduce sentences.

LOCAL INITIATIVES: In addition to the statewide initiatives mentioned above, there are also a handful of municipal initiatives on the November 4 ballot. Here they are:

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA: In Berkeley, Measure JJ seeks to broaden and regularize medical marijuana access. Supported by the Berkeley Patients Group and at least two city council members, the measure would expand the non-residential zones where dispensaries can locate, create an oversight commission including representatives from each of the three existing collectives to promulgate standards and determine whether relocating or future operators are in compliance, issue zoning certificates by right if operators meet standards, and bring Berkeley possession limits in line with recent state court rulings determining that such limits are unconstitutional. The ballot argument in favor of the measure can be viewed at the link above; no ballot argument opposing the measure has been submitted.

FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS: The local grassroots organization Sensible Fayetteville is sponsoring an initiative that would make enforcement of adult marijuana possession laws the lowest law enforcement priority. It also includes language mandating city officials to write an annual letter to their state and federal representatives notifying them of the city's position and urging them to adopt a similar one. If the measure passes, Fayetteville will become the second Arkansas community to adopt such an ordinance. Nearby Eureka Springs did so in 2007.

FERNDALE, MICHIGAN: Ferndale passed a medical marijuana initiative in 2005, but this year a shadowy group known as the National Organization for Positive Medicine has placed an initiative on the ballot that would allow for the distribution of medical marijuana, but only by the National Organization for Positive Medicine. The initiative is not affiliated with the statewide medical marijuana initiative.

HAWAII COUNTY, HAWAII: Hawaii's Big Island (Hawaii County) will be voting on an initiative making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. Ballot Question 1 not only makes adult possession offenses the lowest priority, it would also bar county law enforcement officials from accepting federal deputization or commissions to enforce laws in conflict with the initiative, prohibits the County Council from accepting or spending funds to enforce adult marijuana possession laws, and bar the County Council from accepting any funds for the marijuana eradication program. The initiative is sponsored by Project Peaceful Sky, a local grassroots organization whose name alludes to the disruption of tranquility caused by law enforcement helicopters searching for marijuana.

Alright, potential voters, there you have it. See you at the polls November 4.

Feature: Poll Finds Broad Support for Doing Away with Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Nonviolent Offenders

A poll released Wednesday by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) found broad support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders and a majority who said they would vote for politicians who acted to end them. The poll results challenge the longstanding conventional wisdom that politicians need to be "tough on crime" to win elections.

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federal courthouse, Alexandria, Virginia
According to the poll conducted by StrategyOne, an independent public opinion research firm, 78% thought the courts -- not Congress -- should determine how long people convicted of offenses should be imprisoned. Solid majorities also supported ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders (59%) and voting for congressional candidates who would act to end mandatory minimum sentencing (57%).

"Politicians have voted for mandatory minimum sentences so they could appear 'tough on crime' to their constituents. They insist that their voters support these laws, but it's just not true," says Julie Stewart, president and founder of FAMM. "Republicans and Democrats support change and that should encourage members of Congress to reach across the aisle next year and work together to reform mandatory minimums. Mandatory sentencing reform is not a partisan issue, but an issue about fairness and justice that transcends party lines."

"This poll suggests that a majority of Americans are open to re-examining this issue and moving to a court-driven sentencing model," said Sparky Zivin, research director at StrategyOne.

"I am amazed that such a high number of people even understood the difference between Congress doing sentencing and the courts doing it," said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that focuses on freeing federal drug war prisoners. "I didn't think that many people would agree, but it seems that the public has grasped that crime has been politicized. That leads me to believe we will probably see a much greater understanding of what's wrong with our punitive drug laws and what's wrong with prohibition."

The poll results show that while politicians largely remain wedded to the "tough on crime" philosophy and the notion that it helps them win elections, the public is going in a different direction, said Callahan. "It's very dramatic; it's astonishing," she said. "This is very far from what the politicians are thinking; we are seeing that there is a huge gap there."

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overcrowded prisons
But even on Capitol Hill, there are a few voices calling for radical sentencing reform. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has, since his election in 2006, been leading the charge. Webb has already held two hearings on sentencing and drug policy issues and will hold a third next month.

"America is locking up people at astonishing rates. In the name of 'getting tough on crime,' there are now 2.2 million Americans in federal, state, and local prisons and jails and over 7 million under some form of correction supervision, including probation and parole. We have the largest prison population in the world," said Webb in a statement included in FAMM's press release announcing the poll results. "This growth is not a response to increasing crime rates, but a reliance on prisons and long mandatory sentences as the common response to crime. It is time for America's leadership to realize what the public understands -- our approach is costly, unfair and impractical."

Webb is not alone. Even on the Republican side of the aisle, there are signs of support for sentencing reform. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) is one GOPer who is ready for change.

"Mandatory minimums wreak havoc on a logical system of sentencing guidelines," said Inglis. "Mandatory minimums turn today's hot political rhetoric into the nightmares of many tomorrows for judges and families."

In addition to releasing the poll results Wednesday, FAMM also released a comprehensive new report, Correcting Course: Lessons From the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums, which details how Congress created mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders in 1951 and repealed them in 1970 because the laws failed to stop drug abuse, addiction and trafficking. The politicians involved in overturning mandatory minimums in 1970 had no problem getting reelected, the report notes.

The report also looked at the rebirth of mandatory minimum sentencing in the fear-ridden 1980s and charts the ways they have been ineffective and counterproductive. According to the report, mandatory minimums:

  • Have not discouraged drug use in the United States.
  • Have not reduced drug trafficking.
  • Have created soaring state and federal corrections costs.
  • Impose substantial indirect costs on families by imprisoning spouses, parents, and breadwinners for lengthy periods.
  • Are not applied evenly, disproportionately impacting minorities and resulting in vastly different sentences for equally blameworthy offenders.
  • Undermine federalism by turning state-level offenses into federal crimes.
  • Undermine separation of powers by usurping judicial discretion.

"Our report and poll show that lawmakers can vote to reform mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and live to tell the story. Republicans and Democrats alike don't want these laws. They don't work, they cost taxpayers a fortune, and people believe Courts can sentence better than Congress can. Another repeal of mandatory drug sentences isn't just doable, it's doable right now," said Molly Gill, author of the report.

Criminal Justice Policy Foundation head Eric Sterling was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the mid-1980s, when some of the most draconian mandatory minimum drug laws were passed. He has been working to undo them ever since.

"In 1986, we got stuck with some of the most punitive, least effective criminal sentencing laws ever created, said Sterling. "Mandatory minimums haven't stopped the drug trade. They haven't locked up the big dealers and importers. They're applied to small fries, not kingpins. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars to lock up a street-level dealer for 10 years when that money could be spent on treatment, drug courts, or going after the people bringing in boatloads of drugs every year. Getting rid of mandatory minimums is about getting our priorities straight."

"Mandatory minimums are among the worst criminal justice policies ever adopted in this country," said FAMM's Stewart. "They treat all offenders the same, when the most sacred principle of American sentencing law is that punishment should fit the individual and the crime. Repealing these laws isn't impossible -- it's been done before. The next Congress should do it again," she said.

FAMM's report offers two options for dealing with mandatory minimums: Repealing them outright while leaving federal sentencing guidelines in place, which would allow for judicial discretion, or expanding the "safety valve," under which judges can ignore mandatory minimums in some circumstances.

With the US economy and federal budget under unprecedented pressure, and with elections looming that could dramatically alter the political landscape, the time for radical sentencing reform may be drawing nigh, but reformers aren't counting their chickens just yet.

"There could be a window opening," said the November Coalition's Callahan. "I won't start holding my breath until we see how the elections play out, but we're working hard and preparing to work even harder the next four years."

While a poll isn't going to change the mind of Congress, she said, it creates an opening, both with politicians and the public at large. "With these numbers, I can think of a lot of new ways to talk to people," she said. "Activists tend to think that people don't get it, but this poll shows that people do get it, and now people are even more cynical about their leaders. This helps create a definite climate for achieving reform."

NEW POLL: Americans Oppose Mandatory Minimums, Will Vote for Candidates Who Feel the Same

Press Release

EMBARGOED UNTIL:                                                                 

Sept. 24, 2008, 11:00 AM                                                                   

Contact:  Monica Pratt Raffanel, (678) 261-8118 or (202) 822-6700                                                                               

Press teleconference today! Wednesday, September 24 at 11 a.m. ET

Dial In Number: (800) 593-9034

Passcode:  FAMM (3266)

 

NEW POLL: Americans Oppose Mandatory Minimums,

Will Vote for Candidates Who Feel the Same

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new poll released today by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) shows widespread support for ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses and that Americans will vote for candidates who feel the same way. 

 

·         Fully 78 percent of Americans (nearly eight in 10) agree that courts – not Congress – should determine an individual’s prison sentence. 

·         Six in 10 (59 percent) oppose mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.

·         A majority of Americans (57 percent) polled said they would likely vote for a candidate for Congress who would eliminate all mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes.

 

“Politicians have voted for mandatory minimum sentences so they could appear ‘tough on crime’ to their constituents. They insist that their voters support these laws, but it’s just not true,” says Julie Stewart, president and founder of FAMM.  “Republicans and Democrats support change and that should encourage members of Congress to reach across the aisle next year and work together to reform mandatory minimums.  Mandatory sentencing reform is not a partisan issue, but an issue about fairness and justice that transcends party lines.” 

 

During a time of financial crisis and uncertainty in the United States, reviewing current criminal justice policies and reforming mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders is an option that Democratic and Republican lawmakers are considering.  Although neither is endorsing FAMM’s poll or report, Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) are both concerned about America’s prison and sentencing system.

 

America is locking up people at astonishing rates. In the name of ‘getting tough on crime,’ there are now 2.2 million Americans in federal, state, and local prisons and jails and over 7 million under some form of correction supervision, including probation and parole. We have the largest prison population in the world,” says Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.), who is chairing a symposium on criminal justice and prison issues in October.  “This growth is not a response to increasing crime rates, but a reliance on prisons and long mandatory sentences as the common response to crime. It is time for America’s leadership to realize what the public understands – our approach is costly, unfair and impractical.”

 

“Mandatory minimums wreak havoc on a logical system of sentencing guidelines,” says Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). “Mandatory minimums turn today’s hot political rhetoric into the nightmares of many tomorrows for judges and families.”

 

"This poll suggests that a majority of Americans are open to re-examining this issue and moving to a court-driven sentencing model,” said Sparky Zivin, Research Director at StrategyOne.

 

The poll bolsters the findings of FAMM’s comprehensive new report, Correcting Course: Lessons from the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums, which describes how Congress repealed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in 1970 – and had no trouble getting reelected. 

 

Our report and poll show that lawmakers can vote to reform mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and live to tell the story.  Republicans and Democrats alike don’t want these laws.  They don’t work, they cost taxpayers a fortune, and people believe Courts can sentence better than Congress can.  Another repeal of mandatory drug sentences isn’t just doable, it’s doable right now,” says Molly Gill, author of Correcting Course. 

 

The report details how Congress created mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders in 1951 and repealed them in 1970 because the laws failed to stop drug abuse, addiction and trafficking. It also finds that after 20 years of experience, current mandatory minimums have failed as badly as those enacted in the 1950s.  Correcting Course concludes that mandatory minimum sentences:

 

• Have not discouraged drug use in the United States.

• Have not reduced drug trafficking.

• Have created soaring state and federal corrections costs.

• Impose substantial indirect costs on families by imprisoning spouses, parents, and breadwinners for lengthy periods.

• Are not applied evenly, disproportionately impacting minorities and resulting in vastly different sentences for equally blameworthy offenders.

• Undermine federalism by turning state-level offenses into federal crimes.

• Undermine separation of powers by usurping judicial discretion.

 

Eric Sterling, counsel to the House Judiciary Committee when mandatory sentences were enacted, says, “In 1986, we got stuck with some of the most punitive, least effective criminal sentencing laws ever created. Mandatory minimums haven’t stopped the drug trade.  They haven’t locked up the big dealers and importers.  They’re applied to small fries, not kingpins.  It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to lock up a street-level dealer for 10 years when that money could be spent on treatment, drug courts, or going after the people bringing in boatloads of drugs every year.  Getting rid of mandatory minimums is about getting our priorities straight.”

 

Correcting Course includes comprehensive strategies for how Congress can repeal these ineffective laws today and better reflect the popular attitude among Americans, as brought out in the findings of the poll. 

 

“Mandatory minimums are among the worst criminal justice policies ever adopted in this country.  They treat all offenders the same, when the most sacred principle of American sentencing law is that punishment should fit the individual and the crime. Repealing these laws isn’t impossible – it’s been done before.  The next Congress should do it again,” says FAMM founder and president Julie Stewart.

 

FAMM’s poll was conducted by the independent public opinion research firm StrategyOne.  The survey was conducted by telephone between July 31 and August 3, 2008 with 1,000 adults randomly selected across the United States.  The margin of sampling error for the poll is plus or minus 3.1 percent for 95 out of 100 cases.

 

Families Against Mandatory Minimums is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that supports fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety. For more information on FAMM, visit www.famm.org or call Monica Pratt Raffanel at 678-261-8118.

 

 

###

Feature: US Sentencing Commission to Examine Alternatives to Incarceration

The US Sentencing Commission, the panel that sets sentencing guidelines for federal courts, has signaled that it intends to focus next year on developing alternatives to imprisonment, a move that is welcomed by reform advocates, but opposed by conservatives and, likely, the Justice Department. The commission's intentions were mentioned in a recent filing in the Federal Register and come as a September 8 deadline for public comment has just passed.

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Created in 1984, the Sentencing Commission consists of seven presidential appointees who are then confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel is charged with making sentencing recommendations which automatically take effect unless Congress proactively votes to reject them.

While Congress has repeatedly enacted tough new sentences in bouts of anti-crime or anti-drug hysteria, the Sentencing Commission is less prone to political passions and more likely to act as a restraining influence on congressional incarceration mania. The commission, for example, has for more than a decade urged reforms of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparities that have seen thousands of African-Americans imprisoned for years for crack while mostly whites holding similar amounts of powder cocaine do far less time. Last year, the commission enacted changes in the federal sentencing guidelines to reduce sentences for crack offenders.

Despite objections from the Justice Department, the commission then went a step further, making the reductions retroactive so that some of the thousands of long-serving crack offenders could get out of prison a few months early.

But with some 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, including more than 200,000 in the federal system -- more than half of them drug offenders -- the commission signaled earlier this year that it wants to see more efforts to reduce those numbers. This summer, it hosted a two-day symposium on alternatives to incarceration, and now, with the Federal Register announcement, it appears the commission will continue down that path.

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"The summer symposium was a really good coming together of criminal justice experts," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "There were judges, probation and parole people, law enforcement, academics, and advocates there to talk about what the states are doing in relation to alternatives to incarceration. They discussed successful programs that are diverting people from prison. The commission has demonstrated its interest in this issue and has said it would distribute materials from the symposium, so we are hoping the commission will look to apply some of this to alternatives to incarceration at the federal level, including expanding the sentencing grid to include alternatives."

Not everyone was so excited. In a weekend story in the Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department seemed decidedly unimpressed. Spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said that while the department is interested about the use of expanded monitoring technologies, "we do not believe the use of alternatives should be expanded without further rigorous research showing their effectiveness in promoting public safety."

Similarly, Michael Rushford of the conservative, victims' rights-oriented Criminal Justice Legal Foundation warned that resorting to less mass incarceration could result in rising crime and violence. "I'm old enough to remember the 1960s and the sky-high crime and murder rates we had then," he said. "While there may be a role for diversion for young offenders, serious felony offenders need to be behind bars."

While it is unclear exactly what the commission might recommend, the summer symposium heard lots of talk about drug courts, residential and community corrections, and other alternatives to incarceration. It does seem clear that the commission wants to reduce the flow of new inmates before they get to the prison gates.

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"We're going to be looking at what might fit at the starting point, before somebody is sent to prison," District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, chairman of the commission, told the Wall Street Journal. But the commission will move cautiously, he said.

"The commission's priorities for next year are not yet finalized," said Gotsch, who is hoping it will also consider further reforms of crack sentencing and the mandatory minimum sentencing structure. "But we are encouraged by the symposium and this announcement. Advocates like us and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) will continue to push for modifications of the sentencing grid to make including alternatives to incarceration a priority. The issue is clearly on their radar, and that's a good thing," she said.

The Sentencing Commission can -- and should -- have an impact on Congress, Gotsch said. "If we can get them on board for alternatives to incarceration, that will be huge. When the commission speaks on a sentencing issue, Congress should listen."

Medical Marijuana: California Activist Grower Eddy Lepp Guilty in Federal Cultivation Case, Faces 10 Years to Life

Eddy Lepp, a medical and religious use of marijuana advocate named High Times "2004 Freedom Fighter of the Year," faces a mandatory minimum 10-year prison sentence and up to life after a federal jury in San Francisco found him guilty of conspiracy and cultivation of marijuana with the intent to distribute. Sentencing is set for December 1.

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Eddy Lepp (from indybay.org)
Lepp was arrested in 2004 after DEA agents said they found some 32,000 plants in gardens on his property near Upper Lake. Although US District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled the seizure was based on an invalid search warrant, she allowed prosecutors to enter into evidence 24,000 plants that were growing in plain view of a state highway.

Under federal court rules, Lepp could not mount a medical marijuana defense, and Judge Patel also refused to let him mount a religious use defense. As she pondered the religious defense issue, Patel said that while it may have been possible in a personal use case, it could not apply in a case where someone was growing thousands of plants and distributing them to anonymous parishioners.

"I truly feel I was very, very railroaded by the system, and specifically by (US District) Judge Marilyn Patel," he told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat after the verdict. Lepp said he is both a Rastafarian and a member of the Universal Life Church and that the marijuana was being grown for spiritual as well as medicinal purposes.

Lepp told the court that the plants, grown at a site known as "Eddy's Medicinal Gardens," were not his, but were being grown cooperatively by members of his church, the The Multi-Denominational Ministry of Cannabis & Rastafari. "All I did was make the land available to the ministry," he said.

Lepp is a well-known promoter of marijuana legalization and in recent years has been a fixture at West Coast marijuana reform conferences and festivals. Until she took ill, dying last November, his wife, Linda Senti, was his constant companion. The couple worked to gather petitions for Proposition 215 in 1996 and lobbied Lake County supervisors to set medical marijuana standards. Lepp was also known for publicly smoking marijuana in front of the federal building in Santa Rosa in 2002 in support of medical marijuana.

His attorneys said they planned to appeal on the religious defense and possibly other grounds. If those appeals fail, Lepp will spend much -- if not all -- of the rest of his life in the federal gulag.

Job Opportunity: Media Relations Director, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Washington, DC

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is a national, nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to challenge inflexible and excessive prison terms required by mandatory sentencing laws. FAMM seek to restore judicial discretion so the punishment fits the crime and the individual. FAMM's national membership include individuals, organizations, prisoners and their families concerned about achieving sentencing equity.

Responsibilities include working with the communication director and other staff to maximize the reach and impact of FAMM's campaigns and programs through the media; writing press releases, white papers and supporting materials, including resource lists; managing media relations, announcements and editorial placement; pitching reporters and arranging interviews to get FAMM's messages out; planning and coordinating policy-related media events for state and federal campaigns; writing op-eds and letters to the editor of newspapers on behalf of staff and public officials; updating FAMM media lists with national and state contacts; managing, archiving and distributing media clips on FAMM and related issues to staff and email lists; updating website pages with news clips, press releases and related resources; coordinating media training for members and program staff; and speaking at educational forums and meetings.

Qualifications include at least 2-4 years of media relations experience, including significant writing and editing experience, preferably in a related area; creativity in packaging stories on sentencing and fearlessness in pitching ideas to reporters; familiarity with and a passion for criminal justice related issues; experience creating and managing policy-related media events; and an ability to work independently and as part of small teams with multiple responsibilities.

This is a full-time position with salary commensurate with experience. Benefits include generous vacation and holiday schedules and medical, dental and disability insurances.

Interested applicants should email a cover letter and resume to Monica Pratt Raffanel at monica@famm.org. For more information, see http://www.famm.org. No phone calls please.

FAMM is an equal opportunity employer.

Feature: New Jersey State Assembly Passes Bill Reforming State's "Drug-Free School Zone" Law

Like many other states, New Jersey adopted "drug-free school zone" laws in the 1980s in a bid to stop that iconic drug war menace, the dope peddler lurking in the schoolyard shadows trying to hook our kids on their fiendish wares. Now, in good measure because of its drug-free school zone law, which applies harsh mandatory minimum sentences to areas reaching far beyond any school's walls, the Garden State boasts the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of prisoners -- 35% -- behind bars for drug offenses.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugfreeschoolzonesign1.jpg
misleading concept
Under current law, anyone convicted of selling drugs, or possessing drugs with the intent of selling them, within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of parks, libraries, museums, or public housing projects, faces a mandatory minimum jail sentence of three years and $15,000 in fines.

While the language of the law is color-blind, its effect has been racially pernicious. In the dense urban environment where the state's minority populations are concentrated, the law in effect turns huge swathes of the landscape into drug-free school zones and subjects most urban drug offenders to prosecution under that law. Nineteen out of every 20 people prosecuted under the law are black or brown.

In 2005, the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing issued a groundbreaking report on the law, with a supplemental publication released in 2007. The commission found that the zones were ineffective in reducing drug offenses within the designated areas, while at the same time disproportionately affecting minority communities through its "urban effect."

Pressure has been building to reform the law ever since. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) New Jersey office, headed by Roseanne Scotti, has been prowling the corridors of the statehouse in Trenton seeking to build a winning strategy. DPA added further fuel to the flames earlier this year with its own report, "Wasting Money, Wasting Lives: Calculating the Hidden Costs of Incarceration in New Jersey." The report found that in addition to the approximately $331 million that New Jersey spends each year to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders, the state loses millions more in taxable income from the lost wages of those incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

Despite winning the support of Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman, reformers could not gain passage of an earlier bill, which would have reformed the law by limiting the drug-free zones to 200 feet. But on Monday, the state Assembly took a big step toward reforming the drug-free school zone law, passing by a two-to-one margin a compromise bill that would restore a measure of judicial discretion in sentencing. Under the bill, A-2762, judges would be authorized to allow consideration of parole or probation on a case-by-case basis for some people convicted of distributing, dispensing, or possessing with the intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance while on or within a Drug Free School Zone. The following factors could be applied when weighing whether to apply a mandatory minimum sentence:

  • The extent of the person's prior criminal record and the seriousness of the offense;
  • Where the offense was committed in relation to the school property, including distance from the school or bus and the reasonable likelihood of exposing children to drug-related activities there;
  • Whether school was in session at the time of the offense; and
  • Whether children were present at or in the immediate vicinity of where the offense occurred.

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Judges would be prohibited from waiving a mandatory minimum sentence if the offense occurred on school property or the defendant used or threatened violence, possessed a firearm, or resisted arrest during the commission of the offense.

Now, the bill heads for the Senate, which is unlikely to address it before fall. The bill's sponsors and supporters are urging the Senate to follow their lead.

"Our current Drug-Free School Zone law does not work," said Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), one of the bill's cosponsors. "The mandatory minimum sentencing the zones require has effectively created two different sentences for the same crime, depending on where an individual lives. This is geographic discrimination at its most basic, and it is something to which I am adamantly opposed."

"Our insistence on mandatory minimums combined with the disparate geographic distribution of Drug-Free School Zones has created a situation in which 96% of the individuals imprisoned for dealing drugs within the zones are black or Hispanic," said cosponsor Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), chair of the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee, in a statement made available to the Chronicle by his office. "When a policy so disproportionately affects a single group, we must take corrective action."

"Judges should have the discretion to craft fair and effective sentences and not waste taxpayer money," said DPA's Scotti. "It costs more than $46,000 a year to incarcerate someone in New Jersey. If someone doesn't deserve the additional penalty and if the additional penalty does nothing to improve public safety, mandating an additional penalty is just throwing taxpayer money down the drain. It damages the individual's ability to earn a living and become a productive member of society and it shrinks New Jersey's tax base. The bottom line is that New Jersey can't afford ineffective mandatory minimum sentences."

The state legislature is going on summer break soon, but Scotti said the push would be on in the Senate in the fall, and organized opposition is scarce. "There hasn't really been any," she said. "The prosecutors are for this, the state probation office is for this. The Assembly passed it overwhelmingly. There are some legislators who don't like it, but that seems to just be that old amorphous fear of being called soft on crime and drugs."

Maybe, just maybe, New Jersey is ready to make a break with the past. While the drug-free zones will still exist, at least judges would have the option of not sending all offenders to prison. That could be a start on shaving away at that $331 million annual prison bill. Now, it will be up to the Senate.

Sentencing: New Jersey Spends $331 Million a Year Jailing Nonviolent Drug Offenders, Study Finds as Legislature Ponders Reforms

As New Jersey legislators push for sentencing reforms of some mandatory minimum drug offense sentences, a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance finds that the state is spending more than $330 million a year to lock up nonviolent drug offenders. The state is also losing out financially in additional ways by imprisoning so many drug offenders, the report found.

The report, "Wasting Money, Wasting Lives: Calculating the Hidden Costs of Incarceration in New Jersey," found that the Garden State leads the nation in incarcerating drug offenders, with nearly half of all state prisoners doing time for drug offenses, well above the 31% national average. In addition to the direct costs of imprisoning about 7,000 new drug offenders each year, the state loses even more money from lost wages and tax revenues, unpaid child support, and decreased future earnings of people with criminal records. The report estimated that each person imprisoned in New Jersey will earn $100,000 less in his lifetime that he otherwise would have earned.

"We are creating an entire cast of people who will forever be economic and labor force outsiders," said Roseanne Scotti, director of DPA's New Jersey office, during a Wednesday press conference. Reduced earnings by former offenders hurt the state, she said. "It is money that would have gone into the larger New Jersey economy," Scotti said.

"The time has come for us to change from throw-away-the-key, lock-'em-up mandatory minimums," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union). "Let's understand that that hasn't worked."

Newark Mayor Cory Booker said that saddling drug users with criminal records forces them "to live on the margins as outcasts" and push them back toward drug use. "It is time to stop the madness," Booker said. "It is time to stop the hemorrhaging of good, hard-earned taxpayer dollars, pouring it into a hole that seems to get deeper and deeper and deeper."

The report release was timed to prod the legislature into passing a bill that would allow judges some flexibility in sentencing people arrested for nonviolent drug offenses in school zones. That bill, A 2762, has already passed one Assembly committee.

Wednesday, Cryan predicted the bill would pass by the end of June. Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) also came out in support of the bill that day. Now, its up to the rest of the legislature to decide whether it wants to take a baby step in the direction of reducing drug sentences and saving the state money.

10th Anniversary of Isidro Memorial

Come join the Aviles family and the November Coalition to remember Isidro Aviles who passed away in federal prison on 7/13/98 while serving a harsh mandatory sentence for an alleged drug crime. For more information contact Teresa at (509) 684-1550 or moreinfo©november.org.
Date: 
Sun, 07/13/2008 - 10:00am - 5:00pm
Location: 
Yorktown Heights, NY
United States

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