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Press Release: NJ Senate Comm. to Vote on Reforming Mandatory Minimum Drug Laws

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 18, 2009 CONTACT: Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 or Roseanne Scotti at 609-610-8243 NJ Senate Judiciary Committee to Vote Monday on Groundbreaking Sentencing Bill that Would Give Judges the Discretion to Waive Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Some Nonviolent Drug Offenses Advocates Commend Legislation as Common-Sense and Reasonable Reform that Would Increase Fair and Effective Sentencing and Save Taxpayer Money On Monday, November 23, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider Senate Bill 1866, which would give judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses. The Assembly passed the companion legislation, A2762, last year and Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign the bill when it gets to his desk. This critically important legislation would be a groundbreaking first step in reforming New Jersey’s draconian sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses. Roseanne Scotti, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, applauded the committee’s willingness to consider the bill and urged passage. “Twenty years ago, New Jersey began implementing harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. These laws have been a spectacular failure. They have done nothing to decrease drug activity and have filled New Jersey’s prisons with nonviolent drug offenders at great cost to New Jersey taxpayers,” said Scotti. It costs New Jersey taxpayers more than $46,000 a year to incarcerate an individual and New Jersey spends about $331 million a year just to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders. Allowing judges some discretion would guarantee that justice is done and that taxpayer dollars are not wasted. At a time when New Jersey is facing serious budget deficits and cutting spending on education, health and other critical programs, advocates say New Jersey needs to take a hard look at policies that have mandated the warehousing of large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders at enormous cost to taxpayers. S1866/A2762 is supported by a broad coalition of organizations including Volunteers of American Delaware Valley, Corporation for Supportive Housing, New Jersey Association on Correction, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Coalition of Community Corrections Providers of New Jersey, Women Who Never Give Up, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Hispanic Directors Association and Latino Leadership Alliance. Recently, both the Newark and Camden City Councils passed resolutions supporting S1866. When New Jersey adopted the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act in 1986, the state ushered in a radical era of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. This led to unprecedented levels of incarceration and massive taxpayer expenditures. These unfair and ineffective laws have also had an egregiously disproportionate impact on communities of color. • In 1987, only 11 percent of the New Jersey prison population was incarcerated for drug offenses. Today, 29 percent of the prison population is incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. • Twenty years ago, only 11 percent of individuals in prison were serving mandatory minimum sentences—today 69 percent are serving mandatory terms. • In the last twenty years, New Jersey’s Corrections budget has risen from $289 million to $1.3 billion. • New Jersey spends $331 million a year to incarcerate individuals for nonviolent drug offenses. • The budget for corrections has grown by a factor of 13 while the overall budget grew only by a factor of six. • In the 1980s and 1990s, the Corrections budget grew at three times the rate of the budget for education. • Although African Americans and Latinos account for just 27 percent of the population of New Jersey, they represent 81 percent of the prison population. # # #
Location: 
NJ
United States

Sentencing: US Sentencing Commission to Review Mandatory Minimums

The US Sentencing Commission has been ordered by Congress to review mandatory minimum sentencing. The order came via the National Defense Authorization Act signed last month by President Obama. The act contains quietly added language calling on the commission to conduct several tasks, including examining the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and exploring alternatives.

Congress began passing mandatory minimum laws in the 1980s, especially for drug and weapons offenses. In part as a direct result, the federal prison population has ballooned from 24,000 prisoners in 1980 to more than 209,000 last week. More than half of all federal prisoners are doing time for drug offenses.

Now, the Sentencing Commission is charged with issuing recommendations on mandatory minimums. But don't hold your breath -- this could take awhile.

"It's going to be a massive undertaking," the new chairman of the Sentencing Commission, William Sessions III, told the Wall Street Journal. Sessions said the review would range from weighing the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing on prison population figures and spending to assessing the social impact of those policies. "In my view," he said, "it's a very open-ended request."

Even if the Sentencing Commission were to eventually recommend changing or eliminating mandatory minimums, the final decision is up to Congress. In that regard, recent history is not very encouraging. The commission has for years formally recommended that Congress to undo the sentencing disparity between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses, but Congress has, rejected its advice, except for minor relief when it allowed changes in sentencing guidelines that reduced some crack sentences,although that may finally change this year or next.

When the commission last undertook a full-scale review of sentencing laws in 1991, there were 60 mandatory minimum offenses on the books. Now, there are 170.

Sentencing Project Recommendations to U.S. Sentencing Commission

Dear Friend, Today the United States Sentencing Commission will be meeting in Washington, D.C. to establish its priorities for the 2009-2010 program year. In preparation for this meeting, the Commission has invited interested parties to recommend areas of focus on federal sentencing policy. On August 5, The Sentencing Project submitted a letter to the Commission highlighting four areas of attention. Our recommended issue areas are the following: 1. Prepare a Report for Congress on the Impact of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences - The last substantial report produced on mandatory sentencing is now nearly 20 years old. We recommend a fresh examination of these issues, including the impact of mandatory sentencing on public safety and racial disparity, and the utility of the federal "safety valve" sentencing provision. 2. Continue Recent Activity in the Area of Cocaine Sentencing Policy - The Commission should continue to play an active role in Congressional deliberations regarding changes in the penalty structure for crack and powder cocaine sentencing. 3. Prepare a Report for Congress on Alternatives to Incarceration - Building on evidence that alternatives are underutilized in the federal system, particularly for drug offenses, the Commission should examine options for expansion of alternatives and guidelines restrictions that need to be reconsidered. 4. Examine the Impact of Time Served in Prison on Crime, Costs, and Disparity - Between 1993 and 2006 time served in prison for federal offenses increased by 44%. The Commission should examine these changes to assess their value and cost regarding public safety outcomes. We hope you find these recommendations useful in your work, and we will keep you posted regarding the priorities established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. -The Sentencing Project

Middle East: Dubai Court Sentences Woman to Life for Selling a Joint

A court in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, has sentenced a young woman to life in prison for selling a joint to an undercover officer and possessing 16 more weighing a total of 19 grams. According to the UAE news site 7 Days, the unnamed Tanzanian citizen in her 20s was caught after police received a tip she was running a "drug den" in the Diera area of Dubai.

An Emirati police officer told the Dubai Court of First Instance that they had been tipped in December that the woman was selling drugs from her apartment. "Our sources informed us that she used her flat in Deira area of Dubai as a drugs den and she was trading with customers there," the Emirati officer said. "We sent an undercover policeman to her flat and he bought a cigarette for dhs30. She was possessing many cigarettes full with marijuana and she confessed to us that she used to sell them for dhs30 each."

That converts to about $8.10. At the same per joint rate, the young woman's entire stash would be worth less than $130.

The woman also tested positive for unspecified drugs. That alone is enough to get you imprisoned in the UAE, which has snared not only its own citizens but also unwary travelers passing through Dubai International Airport, who with depressing regularity receive four-year prison sentences for a positive drug test or possession of even the tiniest detectable traces of drugs.

The young woman had denied all charges. Her lawyer has vowed to appeal, but barring a successful appeal or pardon, she would not be eligible to be released and deported for at least 25 years.

Dubai court officials were fine with that. "The law orders us to sentence anyone trading with any amount of drugs to life in jail. Even if the amount is a few grams, it's still trading," one told 7 News. "This verdict is sending out a clear message to anyone trading with drugs that this business can ruin your life."

Or, more accurately, the Dubai courts can.

Sentencing: House Subcommittee Approves Reducing Federal Crack Cocaine Penalties

An end to the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine may be in sight. After more than a decade of congressional dawdling since the US Sentencing Commission called for the disparity to be ended because of its racially disproportionate impact, a bill that would do so is finally moving in the Congress.

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DEA crack cocaine photo
Under current federal law, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same time. The 100:1 sentencing disparity has been widely criticized for years, especially because about nine out of 10 federal crack prosecutions are aimed at African-Americans. (Most crack users are white, despite popular belief.)

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security passed H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. They did so unanimously, making the vote a striking moment of bipartisanship on a once controversial issue. The bill removes all references to "cocaine base" -- federalese for crack -- from the US criminal code, effectively treating all forms of cocaine the same for sentencing purposes.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and has 20 cosponsors, including every Democrat on the subcommittee. It now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee, which is headed by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), also an ardent supporter of ending the sentencing disparity.

Sentencing reform advocates cheered the bill's progress. "I knew it was coming," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. " There has been so much attention paid to sentencing policies in the past six months that it was only a matter of time before one of the half-dozen sentencing bills in Congress would start moving. Today it did."

Repealing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is a much needed step in restoring trust and enacting smarter policies , said Stewart. "If Congress eliminates the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, it would not only restore some faith in the justice system among the communities most affected by the law, it would reduce prison overcrowding and free up funding for more effective rehabilitation efforts. A minimum of $26 million would be saved in the first year of the reforms and nearly $530 million over the next 15 years," she said. "FAMM strongly urges Congress to make the changes retroactive so that people currently serving unjust sentences for crack cocaine can benefit and taxpayers will see even greater savings."

Sentencing: Attorney General Calls for Elimination of Crack-Powder Cocaine Disparity

US Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that the gap in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses must go. Holder's remarks came as he addressed a legal discussion sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.

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Eric Holder
Under federal sentencing laws in place since the mid-1980s, five grams of crack cocaine earns a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same sentence. This 100-to-1 disparity has hit black defendants the hardest. According to US government figures, 82% of federal crack offenders are black and only 9% white.

Pressure has been building for the past decade to reform those laws and reduce or eliminate that disparity. The notion has broad support even in Congress, but faces a perilous path among competing bills and competing notions about how the disparity should be addressed -- eliminate it completely, lower the ratio, or even increase powder penalties -- and how broadly the entire federal sentencing structure needs to be reformed.

Holder made it clear where the administration stands. "One thing is very clear: We must review our federal cocaine sentencing policy. This administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powdered cocaine sentences is unwarranted," Holder said. "It must be eliminated."

That's a stark contrast with the Bush administration, which fought hard to maintain the current cocaine sentencing structure despite opposition from the US Sentencing Commission, drug and criminal justice system reform advocates, an increasing number of prosecutors and judges, and an increasing number of legislators.

Sentencing: Louisiana Bill to Allow Parole for Heroin Lifers Passes Full House, Senate Committee

From the 1970s until 2000, anyone caught possessing, distributing, or producing heroin in Louisiana was eligible for a prison sentence of life without parole. After the legislature changed the law, those penalties were reduced to five to 50 years in prison, with the possibility of parole, but that legislation did not deal with the remaining heroin lifers, who stay behind bars while people convicted since then do their time and go home.

Now, a bill that would redress that injustice has passed the Louisiana House, and on Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved it, too. The bill, HB 630, would allow heroin lifers to seek parole after they have served at least 15 years.

"It is a matter of basic fairness," Pete Adams, executive director of the District Attorneys Association, told the committee. The association supports the bill.

State Rep. Walt Leger III (D-New Orleans) said the average sentence for heroin offenses these days is five years. Keeping the heroin lifers in prison costs the state too much money, he added.

The legislature has killed similar proposals in recent years, including last year, when the House defeated it 44-48. This year it passed the House 57-29. Legislators had said the heroin lifers should seek review at the Louisiana Risk Review Panel, which reviews the cases of nonviolent offenders to assess how dangerous they would be if released.

But even if the panel recommends a reduction, only the governor has the power to commute sentences. Governors typically "are not into signing these things," testified Rep. Cedric Richmond.

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

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