Mandatory Minimums

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Medical Marijuana: California Dispensary Operator Charles Lynch Sentenced to a Year and a Day, Remains Free Pending Appeal

A federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary operator Charles Lynch to a year and a day in federal prison Thursday in one of the first sentences to be handed down since the Obama administration said it was adjusting federal policy on medical marijuana. Lynch was scheduled to be sentenced earlier this year, but US District Judge George Wu postponed that hearing with federal medical marijuana policy up in the air.

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Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)
Lynch was convicted of five marijuana-related offenses last year for operating his dispensary in Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County even though the dispensary was licensed and operated with the approval of local authorities -- except for the sheriff, who turned to the feds after being frustrated in his efforts to shut down the operation of which he did not approve, but which operated in accordance with state law.

Judge Wu showed some leniency in sentencing. Under federal law, Lynch faced a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, but Wu said Lynch merited an exception. He also allowed Lynch to remain free on bail while pursuing an appeal.

That wasn't enough for drug reform advocates. "For Charlie Lynch to spend one night in federal prison, let alone a year, is a travesty," said Stephen Gutwillig, California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "This dispensary operator followed all state and local rules and has been dragged into a legal nightmare right out of Kafka. He is caught between California's voter-approved medical marijuana system and the Bush administration's single-minded effort to smother it. That Attorney General Holder changed federal policy three months ago only makes this miscarriage of justice all the more disturbing. Charlie is like a forgotten prisoner of war, abandoned after a truce was declared."

"Years from now, Mr. Lynch may well be remembered as the last American to go to federal prison for a mistake, the final victim of an already repudiated policy well on its way to the ash heap of history, but whose mean-spirited effects still linger," said Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia. "This sentence is a cruel and pointless miscarriage of justice. Mr. Lynch and his attorneys say they plan to appeal, and we hope they succeed. With federal law enforcement at the Mexican border so overwhelmed that traffickers coming through with up to 500 pounds of marijuana are let go, even one more penny spent persecuting a man who is not a criminal in any rational sense of the word is an outrageous waste of resources."

Canadian House Passes Anti-Crime Bill With Mandatory Minimums for Pot, Other Drug Offenses

The Canadian House of Commons today passed the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper' C-15 crime bill, which will institute mandatory minimum sentencing for some marijuana and other drug offenses. The vote, in which after dilly-dallying for days, the opposition Liberals joined in, came despite hearings in which no witnesses favored such a tough on crime approach north of the border. It's not a done deal yet. The bill must still be approved by the Canadian Senate, which issued a report several years ago calling for the government to head in the opposite directoin. But the Senate, which is appointed, is not known for bucking the government and the House of Commons. That the Liberals buckled for fear of being "soft on crime" and supported the Conservatives in this giant step backward is disappointing but not surprising. Oh, Canada! Once we looked to you for a progressive example on drug policy. I will be writing about all this for the Chronicle later this week, as well as focusing on our other border with a feature article on the Obama administration's new initiative to thwart the Mexican so-called drug cartels.

Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy

Congressional Black Caucus Justice and Civil Rights Taskforce and Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School presents Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy: 25th Anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act. For more information, contact: Bernard Moore, PhD, Senior Policy Fellow, Office of Congressman Danny K. Davis at 202-360-7551 or Bernard.moore@mail.house.gov. Schedule: Welcome and Opening remarks by Rep. Danny Davis (5 minutes) Rep. Charles Rangel (5 minutes) Welcome and Introduction of A.G. by CBC Justice & Civil Rights Task Force, Rep. John Conyers (5-10 minutes) Remarks by Eric Holder, Attorney General (15 minutes), U.S. Department of Justice Introduction of Justice O’Connor by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Charles Hamilton Houston, Institute for Race & Justice (5 minutes) Remarks by Hon. Sandra Day O’Connor (15 minutes), Supreme Court of the United States Mandatory Minimums Panel One: Rep Maxine Waters (CA) History of Mandatory Minimums Hon. Terry Hatter, Judge, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Hon. J. Spencer Letts, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Eric Sterling, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation Charles E. Black, formerly Incarcerated Panel Two: Rep. Bobby Scott (VA) the need for repeal and how to repeal, including legislative update Hon. Ann Williams, Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit A.J. Kramer, Federal Defender, Federal Public Defender of the District of Columbia Julie Stewart, President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums Disparity between Crack and Powder Cocaine Panel Three: Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX) Hon. Reggie B. Walton, Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Hon. William Sessions, Vice Chairman, U.S. Sentencing Commission Brace Nicholson, Legislative Counsel, American Bar Association David Kirby, Former United States Attorney for the District of Vermont Good Time Panel Four: Rep. Danny K. Davis (IL) Hon. Consuelo B. Marshall, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court for Central District of California Nancy Gertner, Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts Marc Mauer, Executive Director, Sentencing Project Harley G. Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons (Discuss overcrowding)
Date: 
Wed, 06/24/2009 - 4:30pm - 7:30pm
Location: 
Orientation Theater-South
Washington, DC
United States

Canada: With Conservative Government Pushing Tough Crime Package, Liberal MP Responds With Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

The Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has introduced a crime and drugs package it had hoped to quickly push through Parliament, but with opposition, the Liberals stalling and the New Democratic Party (NDP) opposing, passage is starting to look much less certain. Meanwhile, a leading Liberal MP has introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession.

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Libby Davies
The pair of government bills, C-14 and C-15, would impose mandatory minimum sentences on some violent and gang crimes and on some drug crimes, respectively. The latter would impose a mandatory minimum sentence of one year for someone possessing as little as one marijuana plant, if that plant were to be determined to be destined for distribution.

The Conservatives are hoping to capitalize on a spate of highly-publicized, prohibition-related crimes of gang violence in the Vancouver area to push their agenda, but it is starting to look like the Liberals and NDP won't go along despite earlier indications they would not fight the Conservative package.

But last Friday, NDP Vancouver East MP Libby Davies lambasted C-15 during a lengthy parliamentary speech, and on Wednesday, Liberal Health Promotion critic Dr. Keith Martin, MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, BC, announced he would introduce a bill for the decriminalization of marijuana this week.

"The 'war on drugs' approach, characterized by zero tolerance, has been a complete failure," said Martin. "It has not reduced the rate of violent crime or drug use, nor has it saved money or lives. To realize meaningful change on our city streets, we must decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot. This will cause drug abuse to be addressed in the public health system, rather than through the courts. It will sever the connection between organized crime and drug users. This bill is bad news for criminal gangs because it would collapse the demand for drug product," Martin argued.

"In the medical profession our first principle is 'do no harm,'" Martin continued. "We are actually doing terrible harm if we continue to address substance abuse uniquely as a criminal issue from the federal level. The blinders have to come off; we have to take a medical perspective if we are going to turn this thing around."

That would be fine with MP Davies, who serves as the New Dems' drug policy critic. Citing statistics showing a large increase in the number of Canadians who reported having used illegal drugs in the past 15 years, Davies called prohibitionist policies "completely ineffective" and pointed to the US as a bad example. "We only have to look south of the border, where the so-called war on drugs has unleashed billions and billions of dollars and where we see massive numbers of people incarcerated, to see what a failure it is."

Citing successes with Canada's four pillar approach -- prevention, treatment, law enforcement, harm reduction -- Davies said the Conservative bill would be "a radical departure" and that the Conservatives were playing the politics of fear. There is no question that it is the core of the Conservative government's agenda around crime. It is about the political optics. I have called it the politics of fear."

Instead of responding with heavy-handed sentencing measures, why not go in a different direction, Davies asked. "We dealt with the marijuana decriminalization bill [when the Liberals were in power]. I know there are members in the House who were on the committee. We heard there were 600,000 Canadians who had a record for possession of marijuana. Why are we not at least beginning there and saying we will decriminalize and then legalize marijuana? We would begin at a place where there is strong public support. We should change the regime we have."

Davies also called out the Liberals to help defeat C-15. "I am very interested to see what the Liberal caucus does with this bill," she said. "I hope that we can defeat it. I hope we can say it is not the right way to go. The NDP does not think the bill should go through. It is not based on good public policy. It is going to be harmful and expensive. It is really time to embark on a common sense approach and accept the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has caused more death, pain, harm and crime than we can bear. It is time to stop it."

The mandatory minimum bills are now before the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee. No hearings or vote have yet been scheduled.

Feature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- New York Rockefeller Drug Law Reform on the Verge of Passage

A week ago today, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) and state Assembly and Senate leaders announced they had reached an agreement on reforming the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The agreement marked a partial retreat from the reforms envisioned in an Assembly bill passed earlier this year, but still offers a significant improvement over the status quo.

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long road to freedom: 2001 protest of Rockefeller drug laws, Albany (courtesy indymedia.org)
The measure was to have been voted on this week as part of the state's budget bill, but that hasn't happened yet, and that's making advocates nervous. While the consensus among advocates seems to be that the bill doesn't go far enough, most want to see it passed as a step in the right direction.

The Rockefeller drug laws were enacted in 1973 and mandate extremely tough prison sentences for the sale or possession of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although allegedly aimed at "drug kingpins," tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned under them, most of them low-level nonviolent offenders. Currently, some 12,000 people are doing time for drug offenses in New York, and they constitute one-fifth of the prison population. Nearly 90% of them are black or Hispanic.

Partial reforms in 2004 and 2005 did little to halt the imprisonment juggernaut. While providing some relief for some drug offenders, those reforms resulted in even more people being sent to prison on drug charges than before.

"While much more moderate than the reform bill passed by the Assembly last month, this proposal constitutes an important step forward in developing more effective drug policies based in public health and safety," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The legislature and governor should have made the proposal even more expansive, for instance by returning discretion to judges in every drug case, not only low-level cases. We believe, though, that this bill constitutes real reform, and should be enacted."

Under the tripartite agreement, the Rockefeller reform bill would:

  • Return judicial discretion in low-level drug law cases;
  • Expand treatment and reentry services;
  • Expand drug courts;
  • Allow for approximately 1,500 people incarcerated for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing;
  • Increase penalties for drug "kingpins";
  • Increase penalties on adults who sell drugs to young people.

In the reforms of 2004 and 2005, people serving A-level felonies -- the most serious -- were able to apply for resentencing, but not those serving B-level felonies, who constitute the bulk of Rockefeller prisoners. While the resentencing option would now be open for some 1,500 B-level offenders, that means that more than 10,000 New York drug war prisoners would remain without recourse.

The bill would also allow judges to divert some low-level drug offenders into drug treatment or other alternatives to imprisonment, but only if they convince judges they are addicts. Given that incarceration costs three times as much as treatment, the state stands to save millions if judges exercise that sentencing discretion.

"As a former prisoner under the Rockefeller drug laws, I support this legislation because it will rescue many of the prisoners who fell through the cracks of the prior reforms," said DPA's Anthony Papa. "This proposal will give people convicted of low-level drug offenses a chance to be reunited with their families and become productive tax paying citizens like myself."

"If this becomes law, it will be a big step forward," said Caitlin Dunklee of the Correctional Association of New York and coordinator of the Drop the Rock campaign. "This is the first major reform of the Rockefeller drug laws since their enactment. It dismantles mandatory minimum sentencing in a meaningful way. It also allocates money for alternatives to incarceration and drug treatment," she said.

But the package doesn't include everything reformers sought, Dunklee conceded. "It does leave intact some harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenses and will lead to the incarceration of future low-level drug offenders -- about half of them will face mandatory minimums. Also, the retroactivity provisions are too limited; fewer than 1,500 of the more than 10,000 behind bars for drug offenses will be eligible to apply," she said. "We have family members asking when their loved ones are coming home, but very few are going to get out early."

"It's a lukewarm reform," said a disappointed Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Social Justice, long a key player in the Rockefeller repeal movement and now preparing to challenge Sen. Charles Schumer in next year's elections. "New York's criminal justice system needed a giant enema, and all the politicians did was pass gas."

"This proposal is a step forward," said Alan Rosenthal, an attorney with the Center for Community Alternatives, a New York organization that works on alternatives to imprisonment. "It is in the tradition of modest reform coming on the heels of the 2004 and 2005 reforms," he said. "It captures some of the same features, allows some resentencing as those did, but still leaves us with a pretty overbearing structure, and although a lot of attention is paid to treatment versus punishment, it still leaves an awful lot of room for punishment and a lot of people stuck in prison. From my perspective, I would give kudos to the legislators who supported this, but would certainly give fair warning to the public that there is still a lot of work to be done."

Rosenthal pointed out that while the reform would allow judges to exercise discretion, that doesn't mean they will. "Most judges come from a prosecutorial background," he noted. "It's not likely that they have an enlightened view of how counterproductive and destructive prison can be. At this point, I don't think things are going to look much different from when the DAs had the discretion. This will be a tiny spigot, and those judges are going to be trying to figure out who is worthy and who is not, who might look more dangerous because of class, skin color, or ethnicity. That sort of potential for coloring judicial decisions leaves us still needing broader reform and a broader understanding of how to deal with these issues."

Whether such partial reforms should be supported is a thorny question, said Rosenthal. "It is difficult to sit there and know that a smaller percentage than we would like are going to benefit, but it's also difficult to say we're going to hold out for everything knowing that if we do, some people are going to suffer under the yoke of imprisonment," he said. "The downside is the public impression that all that needs to be done has been done. Those still left in prison and their family members who are not getting any relief will understand there is more work to do, but the problem will be our ability to blow air into the balloon of public concern."

Sayegh defended the partial reform as the best that could be achieved. "Our job as advocates is to fight like hell to get the most we can get done. We are committed to that. After a hundred years of prohibition and drug wars, anyone who thinks we can accomplish the extraordinary and impossible in one legislative package is dreaming. We need to make the impossible possible and the possible inevitable, and that implies a process. We are here for the long haul," he vowed.

It may be a long haul. "A lot of people I talk to who are not involved in drug policy have told me they thought this was taken care of in 2004 and 2005," said Nicolas Eyle of ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy, an upstate drug reform group. "It will be the same thing again with this bill, but we still have long sentences, we have a kingpin proposal that sounds like it will fit your normal street corner drug crew, so we'll end up with these retail dealers doing 15-to-life. This bill is a step in the right direction, but it's only a baby step," he said.

Likening the Rockefeller repeal movement to the antebellum Abolitionist movement, Credico said the battle against slavery did not settle for half-measures. "The criminal justice system is the new slave power," he said, "and just like the Jim Crow laws, the drug laws will continue to be used to jail, convict, imprison, and disenfranchise people on a massive level. Everyone -- judges, DAs, defense attorneys, corrections officers, court officers, probation and parole officers, upstate politicians and contractors -- depends on these drug cases to stay busy and keep the prisons filled."

The coerced treatment provisions of the reform package are misguided, Credico said. "The drug reform community wants to use the false language of it's a health issue, but these people aren't sick addicts; they're dime bag desperados, the guys retailing on the street corners. Now, they're going to have to plead guilty and convince judges they're addicts," he argued. "If they can't prove they're addicts, they can still go to jail, and they'll be doing one to nine years. This at a time when we have black youth unemployment in the city at 65%. What else are they supposed to do?"

Like Credico, Dunklee was critical of the provision making only people who convince judges they are addicts eligible for diversion in B-level offenses. "This sets up a distinction between people addicted or not," she said, "and only people who are deemed substance dependent will be eligible for diversion. Those people who maybe don't need treatment, but could instead be helped in other ways will be facing mandatory minimum prison terms. We object strongly to that."

Addressing the increased sentences for "kingpins" and people who sell drugs to minors in the final bill, Dunklee said it was a sop to prosecutors. "Gov. Paterson wanted to avoid appearing soft on crime, so he endorsed sentencing enhancements for people the public demonizes," she said. "When the public hears about selling drugs to minors, they think about the guy in the trench coat in the school yard, not the 21-year-old selling to the 17-year-old. The judges will not be able to look at the circumstances of each case, and the young man will go to jail for a long time, but that's not what the public has in mind."

For Dunklee and Drop the Rock, the battle is not over. "We're not going out of business, we're going to keep the coalition intact," she said. "This partial reform has the potential to take the air out of the movement, but we are going to assess how to continue. Our people are committed to full repeal, and we are open to the possibility of broadening our agenda to include prison downsizing. We are going to be figuring out how to respond to the reforms and the new political climate," she said.

But, given that at this writing, the long-delayed final passage of the bill has not yet occurred and given that the Senate Democrats have a razor thin majority, this ex post facto analysis of the 2009 Rockefeller law reforms may be premature. "The bill hasn't passed yet," cautioned Sayegh. "Of course, they will pass a budget bill, but the question is what is going to be included in it. Right now, there are a number of legislators and prosecutors and rags like the Daily News putting out garbage. There is a lot of opposition to this provision, so we can't take its passage for granted. We're almost there, but we're not there yet," he said.

Sentencing: Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Deal Near, NY Times Says

The New York Times reported Thursday that a tentative agreement, on principle, to reform New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws had been reached by Gov. David Paterson (D) and the state legislature. The state Senate has already passed its version of Rockefeller law reform; what remains to be done is to reach agreement with Paterson and Senate leaders, as well as wooing back Senate members if the final bill diverges too far from what they passed.

But it isn't a done deal yet, and reform leaders qualify their attitude as "cautiously optimistic" and holding firm for real reform. The devil is the details, they noted.

"This agreement is a good sign that progress is being made to enact real reform, but it is not final, and meaningful reform will be determined by the details," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The final deal must include the core components of meaningful reform: restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases including 2nd time offenses, sentencing reform, expansion of community drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration, and retroactive sentencing relief for those serving unjust, long sentences for low-level offenses."

Under the tentative agreement, judges would have considerable discretion in sentencing restored. They would be able to divert first-time nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison for all but the most serious drug offenses. Judges are currently bound by mandatory minimum sentences in the Rockefeller laws to send to prison people convicted of possessing small amounts of heroin and cocaine. Judges would also have the ability to send some repeat offenders to treatment, but only if they were found to be drug dependent.

The agreement does not represent repeal of the laws, but rather reform, and comes on the heels of a spirited protest outside of Gov. Paterson's New York City office yesterday where more than two hundred people, including Russell Simmons and Reverend Calvin Butts, called on the governor to keep his word and reform the laws. Another demonstration to pressure the politicians was set for today.

"I stood with the governor in 2002 when he was arrested protesting these laws, so I know he believes in meaningful reform," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance who served 12 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws before then-Gov. George Pataki granted him clemency. "The deal has to be done, and done right. New York's experiment with this criminal justice approach has failed. It's time for the governor and Legislative leaders to take the first step toward a public health and safety approach to drugs."

Not everybody is happy about the presumptive deal. State district attorneys have fought hard to retain effective control over sentencing. Under current law with its mandatory minimums, prosecutors' charging decisions rather than judges' discretion effectively set sentences, and they want to keep that power. On the other side of the equation, some veteran reform activists are denouncing anything short of full repeal as a sell-out.

Stay tuned.

Medical Marijuana: In Wake of Holder Comments, Federal Judge Postpones Sentencing of California Medical Marijuana Provider Charles Lynch

Charles Lynch expected to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum federal prison term Monday for operating a medical marijuana dispensary legal under state and local laws, but it didn't happen. Instead, US District Court Judge George Wu postponed the proceedings, telling prosecutors he wanted more information about what appears to be a Justice Department change of heart and policy regarding such prosecutions.

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Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)
Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would only prosecute medical marijuana providers who violated both state and federal law. Lynch's case is one where he was clearly in compliance with state law in operating his Morro Bay dispensary.

Under Bush administration policy, which did not recognize any distinction between medical and non-medical marijuana, California dispensary operators were targeted for DEA raids and federal prosecutions with no regard for their compliance with state laws. Prosecutions like those of Lynch, who was found guilty in federal court last August, generated loud and boisterous solidarity movements, protests, and scorn toward the federal government.

Judge Wu said he did not believe the apparent change in policy would affect Lynch's conviction, but he said he wanted to consider any new information about the policy change before he imposed sentence on the 47-year-old Lynch.

Federal marijuana law calls for mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving more than 100 pounds or plants, as was the case with Lynch. We can only hope, given the apparent turnaround in federal policy, that Judge Wu finds a way to make his sentence fit the new reality.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums: Knock down drug sentences!

Families Against Mandatory Minimums logo

Friends --

Great news!  The first bill of the new Congress to eliminate mandatory minimums for all drugs was introduced by Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on March 12, 2009.  

H.R. 1466, the Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 2009, seeks to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and to give courts the ability to determine sentences based on all the facts, not just drug weight. It would also refocus federal resources on major drug traffickers instead of low-level offenders.  There is currently no companion bill in the Senate.

We are excited about getting this legislation passed, but we can't do it without your help. It will take time and effort to make this bill become law.  The first step is to ask your representative to become a cosponsor of H.R. 1466. If they already are cosponsors, please take a moment to thank them. FAMM's action center gives you talking points to use in your letters and also lets you know if your representative is already on board. Click here to contact your representative now.

It won't be fast and it won't be easy, but by working together, with commitment and with focus, we can knock down mandatory minimum sentencing laws and insure that the punishment fits the crime once more. 

Thanks for getting involved today!

My best -

Julie 

Julie Stewart

President

Sentences that Fit. Justice that Works.

Urge Obama to commute like Lincoln!

Families Against Mandatory Minimums logo

 

Friends --

Today we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.  While most people know that Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the Union, many don’t know that he was also one of the most generous presidents when it came to granting pardons and commutations.

In one term, Lincoln granted almost 400 commutations and pardons.  Lincoln gave clemency to everyday offenders, Southern sympathizers, draft dodgers, and wrongfully-charged Indians.  He had a weakness for weeping mothers who, in those days, could walk right into the White House and beg for mercy for their sons at the president’s knee.  As many of you know from personal experience, it’s not so easy to get a clemency request into the White House today, and it is much harder to get one granted. 

Lincoln also used clemency strategically, to inspire Congress to act.  At the end of the war, he pardoned ex-Confederates as a way of telling Congress to put differences aside and start rebuilding the country. 

Join us today in asking President Obama to do as Lincoln did:  to grant clemency generously and strategically.  By doing so, he will send a strong message to Congress that mandatory minimum sentencing laws are undermining American principles of justice and must be changed.  President Obama needs to know how much normal, everyday offenders and their families are counting on clemency, so help FAMM by writing to him now!   Click here to send a letter or email to President Obama.

My best,

Julie

Julie Stewart
President
Families Against Mandatory Minimums

Feature: Prisons Under Pressure -- Corrections Budgets in the Age of Austerity

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Arizona State Prison Complex at Douglas
If there are any silver linings in the current economic, fiscal, and budgetary disaster that afflicts the US, one of them could be that the budget crunch at statehouses around the country means that even formerly sacrosanct programs are on the chopping block. With drug offenders filling approximately 20-25% of prison cells in any given state, prison budgets are now under intense scrutiny, creating opportunities to advance sentencing, prison, and drug law reform in one fell swoop.

Nationwide, corrections spending ranks fourth in eating up state budget dollars, trailing only health care, education, and transportation. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, five states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont -- spend more on prisons they than do on schools.

The US currently spends about $68 billion a year on corrections, mostly at the state level. Even at a time when people are talking about trillion dollar bail-outs, that's a lot of money. And with states from California to the Carolinas facing severe budget squeezes, even "law and order" legislators and executive branch officials are eyeing their expensive state prison systems in an increasingly desperate search to cut costs.

"If you look at the amount of money spent on corrections in the states, it's an enormous amount," said Lawanda Johnson of the Justice Policy Institute. "If they could reduce prison spending, that would definitely have an impact on their state budgets. Now, a few states are starting to look at their jail and prison populations," she said.

Among them:

Alabama: The state Department of Corrections is facing a 20% budget cut in 2009. Alabama Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen is telling legislators he will try to "dampen down" the number of new inmates by working on sentencing reform, community corrections, new pardon and parole rules, and a supervised reentry program. The number of Alabama prisoners jumped from nearly 28,000 in March 2006 to more than 30,000 in December 2008, an increase Allen said was caused in part because the legislature had created 67 new felony crimes since 2001.

California: With a prison population of more than 170,000 and the state facing budget deficits of gargantuan proportions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has suggested eliminating parole time for all non-serious, nonviolent, and non-sex offenders. His plan would cut the parole population by 65,000 people, more than half the 123,000 currently on parole. It would also reduce by tens of thousands the number of people behind bars in the Golden State by increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation. That move could cut the prison population by 15,000 by June 2010. Schwarzenegger's proposal is opposed by -- you guessed it -- the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, for which mass imprisonment is a job security issue.

Colorado: Gov. Bill Ritter (D) has proposed extensive cuts in the state corrections system, including closing two state prisons, delay the construction or expansion of two other prisons, and selling a department-owned 1,000-acre ranch. Those cuts would eliminate at least 71 jobs and save $13.6 million in the coming fiscal year.

Kentucky: Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and state legislators last year granted early release to some 1,800 prisoners, including some violent offenders, in a bid to take a bite out of the state's $1 billion budget deficit. Although Beshear and the legislature have protected the Corrections Department from budget cuts afflicting nearly all other state agencies and programs, the state's dire financial straits are making passage of a treatment-not-jail bill for drug offenders more likely this year. That could save the state $1.47 million.

Michigan: Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) will propose keeping prison spending near the $2 billion mark in 2010, 57% higher than a decade ago, but legislators are about to chew on proposals for reform from the Council of State Governments Justice Center to cut the number of state prison inmates by 5,000. That would save about $262 million by 2015, far short of the $500 million annual savings now being called for by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, among others. The Justice Center proposals include cutting the average time above the minimum sentences inmates serve from 27% to 20%. Some 12,000 inmates have already served more than their minimum sentences. Deputy Corrections Director Dennis Schrantz said those proposals were only the beginning, noting that the state had closed nine prisons since 2003 and will close three more this year.

Mississippi: Faced with an emergency $6.5 million (2%) budget cut for the current fiscal year, the state Department of Corrections is moving to reduce the number of inmates in county and regional jails and private prisons. The state pays counties $20 per inmate per day to house them and pays private prison companies at least $31.70 per inmate per day. The state will remove 300 inmates from county jails and 50 from private prisons. Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps also has sent a list of 2,900 nonviolent inmates to the parole board for possible early release. The department may also grant early release to prisoners with severe medical problems, allowing the state to cut costs by not having to provide medical care for them.

New York: With a $15 billion budget deficit and a Department of Correctional Services eating up $2.5 billion a year -- more than any other state agency -- Gov. David Paterson (D) is seeking to release 1,600 offenders early and reform or repeal the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The prison budget has continued to increase despite a whopping 35% drop in crime in the last decade and a prison population at the lowest levels since the 1980s. Now Correctional Services Director Brian Fischer wants to close prison camps and correctional annexes sitting empty with a thousand beds, saving the state $100 million and cutting the 31,000 corrections department employees by about 1,400 through attrition. It's a start.

South Carolina: After running in the red for the last two years, the state's prison director, Jon Ozmint, told legislators he needed $36 million for the current fiscal year, leaving the solons with three choices: cut spending for health, education, or other services; finance corrections through the reserve, or close prisons. Legislators last year rejected Ozmint's suggestion that they save money by releasing prisoners early and closing prisons. This year, Ozmint is suggesting that the state reduce the requirement that serious felons serve 85% of their sentence to 70%. The prison crisis in South Carolina has prompted the normally pro-prison Charleston Post & Courier to call for "alternative sentencing that could keep nonviolent offenders out of prison" and "revising mandatory minimum sentences."

Virginia: Telling legislators "we want to lock up people we're afraid of and not ones we're mad at," Virginia corrections director Gene Johnson said this week Gov. Tim Kaine (D) wants to release some nonviolent offenders 90 days early to save the state $5 million a year. Nearly 1,200 inmates would qualify for early release, he said. Virginia has already closed five prisons employing 702 people, and may resort to limited lay-offs, Johnson told legislators.

This is by no means a list of all the states grappling with prison spending in the current crisis. Correctional costs are on the agenda at statehouses across the country, but as the list above suggests, the economic squeeze is providing openings for reform.

"In the handful of states that have already opened legislative sessions this year, the corrections budget is frequently raised in budget conversations," said Ryan King, an analyst for The Sentencing Project. "A number of governors have raised the issue. It will definitely be on the table. With the recession really taking hold this year, it will be a major, major issue," he said.

"With each passing year, there is a little greater acknowledgement that we are in a position where states are spending far too much money to incarcerate and can't build their way out of it, but the prison population is still increasing each year," said King. "If we want to talk about a sustainable reduction in the prison population, we need to revisit who is going and for how long, as well as a critical evaluation of sentencing laws, repealing mandatory minimums, and expanding parole eligibility. Those are the big steps that need to be taken."

There is still resistance to reform, King said, but things are changing. "There is now much broader consideration of amending parole and probation policies, along with diversion of drug offenders," he said. "Those are probably the two most widely achieved reforms in the last few years. We will probably see more of that, but if we're going to move this from diverting a few thousand people to really addressing the 1.5 million in prison, we are going to have to start asking whether people belong in prison for decades, whether life without parole is really necessary. The real engines of growth for the prison population are admissions and sentence lengths, and a lot of policymakers are still uncomfortable having that conversation."

After decades of seemingly endless sentence increases and prison-building, perhaps the wheel is beginning to turn. Politicians immune to "bleeding heart" pleas for humanity are not immune to pocket-book issues. But while change is starting to come, the US remains a long way from losing its crown as the world's leading jailer.

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