Mandatory Minimums

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As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing. He said he will direct US Attorneys that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders not tied to gangs or major trafficking organizations should not be charged in ways that trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

Attorney General Eric Holder (usjoj.gov)
Holder's announcement is only the latest indicator that -- after decades of "tough on crime" politics in Washington -- pressure is mounting to do something about the huge number of people in federal prisons. The Chronicle will be reporting on the rising calls for reform in both the executive branch and the Congress later this week.

In a major speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco Monday morning, Holder laid out Obama administration sentencing reform plans, some of which can be implemented by executive action, but some of which will require action in the Congress. The comprehensive sentencing reform package is designed to reduce the federal prison population not only through sentencing reforms, but also through alternatives to incarceration in the first place.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

"It's time -- in fact, it's well past time -- to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach," Holder told the assembled attorneys. "While I have the utmost faith in -- and dedication to -- America's legal system, we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken. The course we are on is far from sustainable. And it is our time -- and our duty -- to identify those areas we can improve in order to better advance the cause of justice for all Americans."

One of those areas, Holder said, is mandatory minimum sentencing.

"We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.  Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences -- regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case -- reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries," said the former federal prosecutor. "Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They -- and some of the enforcement priorities we have set -- have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color. And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive."

In addition to reducing the resort to mandatory minimum sentencing and directing prosecutors to use their discretion in charging decisions, Holder will also order the Justice Department to expand the federal prison compassionate release program to include "elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences."

Beside the executive branch actions, Holder also committed the Obama administration to supporting sentencing reform legislation currently pending before Congress, specifically the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619), which would give federal judges the ability to sentence below mandatory minimums when circumstances warrant, and the the Smart Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 1410), which would reduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes, slightly expand the existing drug sentencing safety valve, and apply retroactively the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010's reduction in the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

"Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars," Holder said. "Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable."

Sentencing and drug reform advocates welcomed Holder's speech and the Obama administration's embrace of the need for criminal justice reforms, but also scolded the administration and lawmakers for taking so long to address the issue and for timidity in the changes proposed.

"For the past 40 years, the Department of Justice, under both political parties, has promoted mandatory minimum sentencing like a one-way ratchet. Federal prison sentences got longer and longer and no one stopped to consider the costs and benefits," said Julie Stewart, founder and head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Today, at long last, the politics of criminal sentencing have caught up to the evidence. The changes proposed by the Attorney General are modest but they will make us safer and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the process."

"There's no good reason, of course, why the Obama administration couldn't have done something like this during his first term -- and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay," said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann in a message to supporters. "But that said, President Obama and Attorney General Holder deserve credit for stepping out now, and for doing so in a fairly decisive way."

[See our related story this issue, "Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform?"]

San Francisco, CA
United States

Juries Must Find Facts on Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Supreme Court Rules

The US Supreme Court Monday dealt a blow to mandatory minimum sentencing, ruling that any facts used to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence are "elements" of the crime and must be proven by a jury, not left to a judge. The 5-4 ruling came in Alleyne v. United States.

Until Monday's ruling, judges had been able to find certain facts that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences, such as quantities of drugs involved in an offense, based on a "preponderance of evidence" in post-conviction sentencing hearings. Now, those facts will have to established by juries in the course of the trial using the higher standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The case is the latest in a line of cases that began with the groundbreaking 2000 Supreme Court decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that any fact that increases the range of punishments is an "element" of the crime and must be presented to a jury and proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Sentencing reform advocates were pleased by the ruling.

"Mandatory minimums for drug offenders will lessen, but it's difficult to say to what extent," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes mandatory minimum sentences. "It's also likely that this will have beneficial effects in reducing racial disparity, because so many mandatory minimums are imposed for drug offenses, and because African-Americans in particular are on the receiving end of those penalties."

"No defendant should have to face a mandatory minimum sentence because of facts that are not considered -- or worse, considered and rejected -- by a jury," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. "As Justice Thomas noted in Monday's opinion, 'mandatory minimums heighten the loss of liberty.' Today, those who face mandatory minimums do so with the Constitution more firmly at their backs."

Drug offenders are those most likely to be hit with mandatory minimum sentences.

Washington, DC
United States

Iowa Federal Judge Criticizes Harsh Methamphetamine Sentences

A Sioux City-based US district court judge has criticized harsh tough methamphetamine sentencing guidelines, writing in a recent opinion that he considers them "fundamentally flawed," not based on empirical evidence, and too harsh for low-level offenders.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/judge-mark-bennett.jpg
Judge Mark Bennett (iand.uscourts.gov)
US District Judge Mark Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa cut the sentence of a convicted Sioux City methamphetamine dealer from nearly 16 years to just more than six years, saying in his 44-page ruling that he has a "fundamental policy disagreement" with the meth portion of the federal sentencing guidelines.

"The methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed because they fail to consider additional factors beyond quantity," Bennett wrote in his Friday ruling in US v. Willie Hayes. "The system is too severe in the indiscriminate way it treats offenders… Since the methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed, I find that they fail to promote the purposes of sentencing" outlined in federal law.

Bennett has been a long-time critic of federal mandatory minimum sentencing, and in his ruling, he argued that meth sentencing guidelines seemed more based on politics than science and lacked the depth of other portions of the guidelines. Meth dealers are getting much harsher sentences than people convicted of selling heroin or cocaine, he noted.

Iowa defense attorneys consulted by the Des Moines Register said Bennett's ruling was "a very big deal."

"It is a very big deal, and it's also something that's been coming for awhile," said Des Moines defense attorney Angela Campbell. "And he's right. The guidelines are so high, you can have a runner or a very low-level pseudoephedrine (purchaser) who gets life very easily… If you're buying pseudoephedrine for a large-scale drug operation, you don't get hit just on what you buy, you’re responsible for the same thing as the entire conspiracy."

"He's not a lone voice in the wilderness," said Iowa defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown, who added that defense lawyers need to cite Bennett's opinion in meth cases. "It's an argument that defense lawyers in both the Northern and Southern districts of Iowa need to make," Brown said. "It's malpractice not to."

At least two other federal judges, Joseph Bataillon in Nebraska and John Gleeson in New York have issued similar criticisms of meth guidelines. Bennett's ruling drew on their reasoning.

Bennett, for his part, said reducing meth guideline sentences by a third was "a good starting point and a reasonable way to express my policy disagreement." But, he added, he "will reserve the ability to adjust the figure upwards and downwards as I weigh" other "important factors the guidelines do not contemplate."

Prosecutors could appeal Bennett's ruling in the Yates case. If they do, that could open the door to a decision by the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which in turn could open the door to a US Supreme Court review of sentencing procedure in the world of now-advisory guidelines, or even of the fairness of meth sentences.

Sioux City, IA
United States

Justice Safety Valve Act Introduced in House

On Wednesday, US Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, House Bill 1695, in the House of Representatives. Identical companion legislation, Senate Bill 619, was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Pat Leahy (D-VT) last month.

US Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA)
Under pressure from sentencing reform advocates, as well as civil rights activists, Congress modified its strict mandatory minimum drug sentencing regime years ago to create a "safety valve" allowing some -- but not all -- drug offenders to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences. The 2013 Justice Safety Valve Act would expand the safety valve to apply to all federal crimes involving mandatory minimums.

"Mandatory minimum sentences have been shown to mandate unjust results," said Rep. Scott. "They have a racially discriminatory impact, studies conclude that they waste the taxpayer's money, and they often violate common sense."

"The one size fits all approach of federally mandated minimums does not give local judges the latitude they need to ensure that punishments fit the crimes," said Rep. Massie. "As a result, nonviolent offenders are sometimes given excessive sentences. Furthermore, public safety can be compromised because violent offenders are released from our nation's overcrowded prisons to make room for nonviolent offenders."

Noting that the federal Bureau of Prisons accounts for 25% of all Justice Department spending, Scott and Massie said passage of the measure was necessary to help reduce "the bloated federal prison population." Drug offenders make up nearly 50% of the more than 200,000 current federal prisoners.

Washington, DC
United States

Sens. Leahy, Paul Introduce Federal Mandatory Minimum Reform Bill [FEATURE]

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) joined Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in introducing legislation that would give federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing in cases where mandatory minimum sentences are involved. The bill, Senate Bill 691, also known as the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would expand the "safety valve" to apply to all federal crimes.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY)
Currently, the "safety valve" allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum only in some drug cases. Only about 25% of federal drug offenders are currently able to take advantage of the "safety valve" to earn reduced sentences.

The bill comes as the federal government faces chronic budget crises and a federal prison population that has grown nearly 10-fold in the past three decades and by 55% since 2000. In 1980, there were some 25,000 federal prisoners; now there are more than 217,000, and almost half of them are drug offenders. At more than $7 billion this year, the federal prison budget now accounts for almost one-quarter of all Justice Department spending, and is up by $2 billion in the last five years alone.

The bill also comes amidst a rising hue and cry to move away from mandatory minimums. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service issued a January report that suggested that instead of expanding federal prison construction, Congress "could consider options such as modifying mandatory minimum penalties," as well as increased resort to probation, reinstating parole in the federal system, and "repealing federal criminal statutes for some offenses."

Similarly, the US Sentencing Commission surveyed federal judges in 2010 and found that 70% of the 600 judges who responded favored expanding the "safety valve" to all mandatory minimum sentences. Rising federal prison budgets and sentencing reform have also been a continuing concern for Chairman Leahy. He held hearings last summer on the issue, and now he has sponsored legislation to do something about it.

"As a former prosecutor, I understand that criminals must be held accountable, and that long sentences are sometimes necessary to keep criminals off the street and deter those who would commit violent crime," Sen. Leahy said. "Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake.  I am not convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just or beneficial. It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them.  A one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing does not make us safer."

"Our country's mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the constitutional separation of powers, violates the our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer," said cosponsor Sen. Paul. "This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory minimum penalties."

Drug and sentencing reform advocates celebrated the bill's introduction, although some thought that even more should be done.

The Yankton (SD) Federal Prison Camp. It used to be Yankton College, but now houses minimum security prisoners. (wikimedia.org)
"I am thrilled that Sen. Leahy and Sen. Paul are promoting this common-sense sentencing reform," said Julie Stewart, founder and executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "The mandatory minimum sentences Congress might be appropriate in many cases, but certainly not in every case, especially those involving non-violent offenders. By giving courts more flexibility, Congress will ensure that judges use our scarce prison beds and budget to keep us safe from truly violent offenders."

"Congress must reexamine mandatory minimum sentencing to determine whether they are necessary and appropriate while also analyzing the racial disparities that have arisen in the imposition of mandatory sentences," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bill is a step in the right direction. While overdue, the recent reform of the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity did not do enough to alleviate mass incarceration, or racial disparities, in the federal system. Passage of this bill will hopefully mean more judges won’t give low-level drug law offenders draconian sentences reserved for drug kingpins. Research has shown that more than half of all federal drug law offenders had little or no criminal history but they make up more than half of all federal prisoners."

"We are pleased that after decades of 'lock 'em up' rhetoric, Republicans and Democrats are beginning to realize that ever increasing penalties are not the most effective way to keep Americans safe," said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project. "Nowhere is this more true than in the area of mandatory minimum penalties, which are limited because they address severity of punishment, not certainty. A recent Congressional Research Service report shows that mandatory minimums are a primary driver of our high prison populations and costs. Moreover, they are rife with racial unfairness.  While it would be better to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether, we are pleased that Senators Leahy and Paul have introduced legislation that would mitigate their harshest effects. Congress should take up this legislation to address ineffective 'one size fits all' mandatory minimum penalties that allow little consideration for individual characteristics and drive racial disparities in sentencing."

And, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on federal prisoners, has been pointing out for years, mandatory minimum reforms and sentencing reforms in general are "back end" solutions. While such measures are a necessary corrective to ameliorate what Leahy called the country's "mass incarceration problem," the more radical solution is on the "front end" -- stopping those federal arrests and prosecutions.
 

"It's a good news bill, don't get me wrong," Callahan said Thursday. "Dismantling the drug war a brick at a time is one way to get rid of it -- or will we just create more space for more people to do less time? I can't help but know that leaders can get bolder than this. And those judges would do well to use a lot more discretion pretrial and start disallowing various 'extrajudicial procedures' like count-stacking, reliance on informants and rewarded witnesses; fast-tracking--and it wouldn't take an act of Congress."

Washington, DC
United States

Sens. Leahy and Paul Introduce Bill to Undo Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Pat Leahy & Rand Paul
Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have introduced S. 619, the bipartisan "Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013," allowing judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences when they deem appropriate. It expands on legislation passed in 1994 that allows judges to waive five- and ten-year sentences for certain drug crimes. (We advocated for the original safety valve, during our first year as an organization.) The Leahy-Paul bill does this for all federal crimes.

Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has a press release. So does FAMM.

Phil will be doing a feature story on the bill tomorrow, but not in time for tomorrow morning's email editions, so be sure to check Drug War Chronicle this week. (If you don't get the Chronicle by email, you can sign up here.)

Snitch: Action Thriller With a Drug War Message [FEATURE]

Snitch is a Hollywood action thriller with a message, and it’s a message that is so far playing well with audiences and theaters across the land. The $15 million crime and justice pic starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Susan Sarandon has already done more than $32 million in gross box office receipts, and its being held over for a fourth week in select theaters around the country.

Based on a 1999 PBS Frontline documentary of the same name, Snitch tells the story of trucking company owner John Matthews (Johnson), whose estranged son is set up by a friend in trouble with the law. The son accepts delivery of a package of Ecstasy, and is then raided and arrested by the DEA. Matthews' hired attorney explains to the stunned parents that their son is looking at a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, and the only way out is to snitch on somebody else.

The son bravely refuses to rat out his friends and is kept behind bars, where he is brutalized, but Matthews feels it is nobler to save his son and decides to intercede on his behalf. Using his business connections, he wrangles a meeting with hard-hearted, politically-driven US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) and offers to set up dope dealers himself if that can get his son out of trouble.

From there, it's typical action thriller material, with dangerous, desperate dope dealers (who already have two strikes and aren't about to go down for a third), tormented ex-cons trying to go straight, duplicitious (but kind hearted) DEA agents, and bloodthirsty Mexican cartels. There is danger, suspense, shoot 'em ups, and car chases before the movie resolves with junior getting out of jail and the family disappearing into the witness protection program.

But running throughout the nearly two-hour movie are the twin themes of snitching and mandatory minimum sentencing. Snitch lays bare the workings of the drug war's informing imperative, scratching at the surface of the moral contradictions involved, and subtly brings to life the mindless cruelty of imposing lengthy mandatory minimums on nonviolent drug offenders, but it manages to do so in the middle of a mainstream cinematic entertainment vehicle.

That's just what director Ric Roman Waugh wanted, he told Drug War Chronicle in a phone interview Wednesday from Austin, where he is attending the SXSW festival. Once merely a music showcase, SXSW is now a playland for all sorts of artistic endeavors, including Hollywood action films with a message.

"The move is really a first testament to how far you go to protect your kids," said Waugh. "In the documentary, he didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He got the US Attorney to sign off and reduce his kid's sentence for a bigger bust. That really happened, and we wanted to open that up."

When he was offered the chance to rewrite the script for the movie, he jumped at the offer, he said.

"They sent me the original script and the Frontline documentary, and it was that core message that really jumped out, and we turned that into a first-person point of view movie," the stuntman turned director said. "The snitching and the mandatory minimums were integral to what we wanted to talk about. The message of the movie is that you can be for or against the war on drugs, but watch what this father went through and then think about these controversial mandatory minimums. When you walk out of the theater and realize nonviolent drug offenders are doing longer sentences than rapists and people who committed manslaughter, that's something to think about."

panel at DC Snitch screening, with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA, FAMM president Julie Stewart, Waugh, and Lawrence & Lamont Garrison
Snitch was screened last week at an event hosted by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in Washington, DC, but the film has been generating buzz among the broader public as well.

"The response has been tremendous," Waugh said. "There is a core audience that will go see a movie with a message, but that's a relatively small audience. But when you can put that message in the body of bigger action thriller and you're not hitting them over the head with it but just allowing them to experience the controversies, they're coming out and talking about it. They're talking about the world of informants, the liar's club, if you will, and what you would do if your life or the life of your child was on the line. It's created a lot of dialog, and that's what we intended.

Unlike documentaries, which typically play to art house audiences and die quiet, largely unlamented deaths, this Hollywood treatment of the issues has demonstrated some staying power.

"It's been playing for three weeks and will continue for quite awhile," said Waugh. "We've exceeded expectations for movies this size, lots of theaters are keeping us over for the fourth week, and we're even adding a few screens. People are able to relate to this in their own lives. What would happen if their kids were in harm's way? The movie tries to look these draconian laws and the system as a whole and get people to ask where they stand on them. We're only halfway there, and it's already a success. That's a real testament that you can do a message movie, you can do a commercial action thriller that's about something."

As noted above, even though Snitch opened on February 22, it's still being held over in theaters across the land. If you have an interest in drug war issues or if you get off on action flicks in general or flicks starring The Rock in particular, or better yet, if you have a friend or family member who's gaga for The Rock or a sucker for car chases, but has displayed no particular interest in or awareness of issues like snitching or mandatory minimums, it's time to have a movie date while Snitch is still on the big screen.

Senate Judiciary Chair Calls for End to Mandatory Minimums

Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), the powerful head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for the end of mandatory minimum sentencing at both the state and federal levels in comments made last Wednesday. He also said he hoped the federal government would not spend "a great deal of resources" on enforcing marijuana laws in states where it is legal. 

Sen. Leahy addresses law students at Georgetown University (leahy.senate.gov)
While Leahy said his highest priority in the new Congress that begins next month would be overhauling immigration laws, along with renewing the Violence Against Women Act and taking some action on gun policy, he diverted from his prepared remarks to Georgetown University law students to condemn mandatory minimum sentencing, calling the practice "a great mistake" that harms youth and minorities.

"I think at the federal level and at the state level, get rid of these mandatory minimum sentences. Let judges act as judges and make up their own mind what should be done," he said. "The idea that we protect society by one size fits all, or the idea that we can do this kind of symbolism to make us safer -- it just does not work in the real world."

Leahy, who has previously said he would hold hearings on the federal response to successful marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, did not bring up the topic in his prepared remarks, but did respond to questions from students on the issue. He reiterated that he will seek clarification from the administration on how it will enforce federal marijuana laws there and suggested that he hoped it would not be a high priority.

"My own predilection is, I hate to see a great deal of law enforcement resources spent on things like the possession, use of marijuana when we have murder cases, armed robbery cases, things like that that go unsolved," he said.

Leahy is the longest serving Democrat in Congress. He could have been appointed to the chairmanship of the budget-controlling Senate Appropriations Committee, but instead chose to stay on as head of the Judiciary Committee, where he has the power to call hearings and move legislation on criminal justice issues.

Washington, DC
United States

California Three Strikes Reform Initiative Poised to Win [FEATURE]

In 1998, Bernice Cubie got caught with $10 worth of cocaine. Since it was her third offense, although she had never hurt anyone, she was sentenced to up to life in prison under California's Three Strikes law. Now 59 years old, Cubie has served more than 14 years in prison at a cost to California taxpayers of around $700,000 dollars.

Barring something changing fast for Ms. Cubie, she will die in prison. The African-American grandmother has already lost one kidney in prison and is now suffering from an advanced form of terminal cancer. Although she walks only with the assistance of a walker and had a parole plan to be housed with her daughter and a drug treatment counselor, as well as the recommendation of prison doctors, the California parole board denied her compassionate release petition. She has less than six months to live, but will not have a parole opportunity until 2023.

Shane Taylor is another California Three Strikes lifer. He's also been behind bars since 1998, when he was convicted and sentenced to life for possession 0.14 grams of methamphetamine. His previous two convictions were for burglaries days apart in which nothing was taken but a checkbook, and police recovered that before any money was withdrawn.

The judge who sentenced Taylor now regrets that decision and speaks out publicly in favor of his release. So does the district attorney who prosecuted him under the Three Strikes law. But although he has already served 13 years in prison for little more than a tenth of a gram of meth, he won't be eligible for parole for another dozen years.

That is, unless California voters next month approve Proposition 36, a measure designed to amend the Three Strikes law so that only prisoners whose third strike was a "serious" or "violent" offense under California statute would be subject to life imprisonment. In addition to modifying future Three Strikes sentencing, the measure would also impose some retroactivity, allowing prisoners currently serving Three Strikes life sentences to seek a judicial order to reduce those sentences to no more than twice the sentence for a first offender.

Proposition 36 could save the cash-strapped state $100 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. Between the prospect of budgetary savings and the desire to undo egregious sentences imposed on small-time, nonviolent offenders, including many drug offenders, the measure looks likely to appeal to California voters.

According to a bevy of recent polls, Proposition 36 appears to be sitting pretty. A September California Business Roundtable poll had it winning 72% to 19%, a September Los Angeles Times poll had it winning 65% to 20%, and an October Business Roundtable poll had it winning by 72% to 20% in a survey that included strong support, likely support, and leaning toward. The lone outlier was a September SurveyUSA poll that had Prop 36 with 43%, with 23% opposed and a whopping 34% undecided, but even in that poll, support for the measure was nearly double opposition.

"Things are looking pretty positive," Yes on 36 spokesman Dan Newman reluctantly conceded. "Most of the public polling has it around 70%, and people are voting now. We've built an unprecedentedly broad and deep coalition with support from law enforcement leaders, civil rights groups, the district attorneys of big cities, and fiscal conservatives like Grover Norquist."

Indeed, the campaign's list of endorsements is impressive, and includes Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and former Chief Bill Bratton. Also on board are San Francisco DA George Gascoigne and Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen, along with several dozen other law enforcement and elected officials.

"The state should not allow the misallocation of limited penal resources by having life prison sentences for those who do not pose a serious criminal threat to society. The punishment should fit the crime," said Cooley.

Somewhat more head-turning is support from conservatives, such as Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform. It's about the money, said Newman.

"Conservatives support this largely for fiscal reasons," he explained. "They don't like seeing us waste $100 million a year at a time of looming fiscal crisis. This is money that could be used for schools or to prevent crime."

Not everyone supports the initiative. Mike Reynolds, the author of the original Three Strikes legislation, wrote that initiative after his teenage daughter was shot and killed by a repeat offender in an attempted purse snatching in Fresno. He says that $100 million a year is a small price to pay to keep dangerous offenders locked up.


"Three Strikes passed and California's crime rate dropped in half," said Reynolds. "There is no way we should change something that has been so successful," he argued. "The reductions in crime have really saved the state an enormous amount of money and increased our quality of life. You have half the chance of being a violent crime victim than before Three Strikes."

But attributing the drop in crime in California to the Three Strikes law may be a stretch. Violent crime rates have been dropping around the country for the past two decades -- in states with and without harsh sentencing mechanisms. Criminologists are divided on the causes of the drop.

"The initiative campaign is quick to point out their support from law enforcement, but only three of 58 district attorneys, one sitting police chief, and one retired chief support it," Reynolds said. "Virtually all major agencies in the state are against this. Everything with a badge and a uniform short of the Cub Scouts is against this thing. I've never seen such a full court press."

But despite all that supposed law enforcement enmity, there has been very little opposition presence this year. That's a change from 2004, when Proposition 64, which also would have amended the Three Strikes law, looked set to pass until the final weeks, when Gov. Schwarzenegger and actor Martin Sheen helped law enforcement raise a late clamor and send the initiative down to defeat.

Reynolds' opposition to Three Strikes reform is understandable given his personal history, said Newman, but it shouldn't get in the way of smart public policy.

"I'm sorry for the unbelievably tragic loss he suffered," he said. "It's the worst thing anyone could have to go through, and I can't imagine the pain and suffering that must bring, but for folks who want to prevent serious and violent crimes in the future, the best way to do that is to ensure that law enforcement resources are focused on those dangerous and violent criminals. We are facing dual challenges of fiscal crisis and prison overcrowding," Newman continued. "We have to be smart and make some wise decisions in terms of how we deal with this. Will we release someone who recently committed a violent crime or will we release someone who got caught with a joint 30 years ago and is now in a wheelchair?"

California voters are already making their choice through early voting. We will know how they feel when the final votes are tallied on election day.

CA
United States

Supreme Court Grants Lesser Sentences in "Pipeline" Crack Cocaine Cases

The US Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that decreased crack cocaine sentences approved by Congress in 2010 also apply to people who were convicted but not yet sentenced when the law took effect. The decision could result in reduced sentences for thousands of so-called "pipeline" federal crack cocaine defendants.

Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act and President Obama signed it into law after years of complaints about the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine and the racial impact of those disparities. Under laws passed in the late 1980s, it took 100 times as much powder cocaine to generate mandatory minimum prison sentences as it did for crack cocaine. The act reduced the quantity disparity to 18:1.

The decision in two cases of men convicted on federal crack charges but sentenced after the act became law came on a narrow 5-4 vote. The two cases were consolidated in a single ruling in Dorsey v. United States.

In one case, Edward Dorsey was arrested in 2008 and pleaded guilty in July 2010 to possessing 5.5 grams of crack with the intent to distribute. He was sentenced to a mandatory minimum 10 years; under the new law, his sentence would likely have been around four years.

In the other case, Corey Hill was convicted in 2009 of selling 53 grams of crack in 2007 and sentenced to 10 years in prison; under the new law, his sentence would have been around five years.

Federal appeals court split on whether the new law should be applied retroactively, prodding the Supreme Court to take up the cases and bring clarity to the issue.

The court split in what has become almost standard for the Roberts court. All four liberal justices weighed in on the side of extending the sentencing reductions and were joined by swing justice Anthony Kennedy. The court's four staunch conservatives all dissented.

Sentencing reform advocates welcomed the ruling.

"We are thrilled with the court's decision," said Julie Stewart, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which had filed a friend of the court brief in the case. "We considered it patently unjust to make these pipeline defendants serve longer sentences under a scheme that was completely repudiated by Congress. As the court found, doing so would have flouted the will of Congress, which called on the US Sentencing Commission to lower crack cocaine sentences 'as soon as practicable' after the Fair Sentencing Act was signed into law. Especially exciting is the fact that Justice Breyer's opinion for the majority recognized that people who were sentenced after August 3, 2010 to an old law sentence are eligible to seek relief in federal courts."

Washington, DC
United States

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