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Senate Hearing Takes on Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing last Wednesday as Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sought to create momentum for a reform bill they filed together this spring, the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).

Senate Judiciary Committee, hearing on mandatory minimums -- Rand Paul waiting to testify
The hearing comes in the face of a federal prison population that has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years, driven in large part by mandatory minimum sentences, the number of which has doubled in the past 20 years. Many of them are aimed at drug offenders, who make up almost half of all federal prisoners. Taxpayers are shelling out more than $6.4 billion this fiscal year to pay for all those prisoners.

Mandatory minimum sentencing reform has already won support from the Obama administration, with Attorney General Eric Holder last month issuing guidance to federal prosecutors instructing them not to pursue charges with mandatory minimums in certain drug cases and announcing last week that the shift would also include people who have already been charged, but not convicted or sentenced.

And it has support on the federal bench. The same day as the hearing last week, Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chairman of the criminal law committee of the US Judicial Conference, sent a letter to the committee expressing the federal judiciary's position that mandatory minimums lead to "unjust results" and its "strong support" for the Justice Safety Valve Act. The letter noted that the federal judiciary has a longstanding policy of opposing mandatory minimums.

The hearing began with an extended photo-op and media availability as Sens. Leahy and Paul chatted before the cameras in an exercise in bipartisan camaraderie.

"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," said Leahy. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."

Leahy noted the Justice Department's recent moves on mandatory minimums, but said that wasn't enough.

"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act. We cannot afford to stay on our current path. Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution -- it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."

Paul, for his part, was on fire at the hearing. The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky decried not only the inequity of the harsh punishments but also of policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities.

"I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college," Paul related. "Thirty years later, he still can't vote, can't own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box, the box that basically says, 'I'm a convicted felon, and I guess I'll always be one.'"

It wasn't just white guy pot offenders Paul was sticking up for.

Pat Leahy
"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago," Paul said. "Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."

As was the case with the Judiciary Committee hearings on marijuana law reform earlier this month, octogenarian Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) appeared to be the sole holdout for maintaining harsh war on drugs policies. Grassley, the ranking minority member on the committee, complained that the move to pull back on mandatory minimums ignored the fact that the law was originally written to address sentencing disparities based on judicial discretion.

"No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said before criticizing the Supreme Court for making federal sentencing guidelines advisory and the Obama administration for citing prison costs as a reason to reduce mandatory minimums. "So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley complained.

Among witnesses at the hearing, only Scott Burns, formerly of the drug czar's office and currently executive director of the National District Attorney's Association, sided with Grassley. He said crime is down and it is a myth that the federal system is in crisis.

"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said.

But other witnesses, including former US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, disagreed. Tolman told the committee that the mandatory minimum sentencing structure was inherently unfair because it put all discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who have a vested interest in securing convictions and harsh sentences. Political concerns of prosecutors rather than the public safety too often drive charging decisions, which should instead be left up to judges, he said.

Even conservative witnesses agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing had become excessive.

"The pendulum swung too far, and we swept in too many low-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading voice in the conservative criminal justice reform movement.

The bill has been filed, the hearing has been held, support has been made evident. Now, it is up to the Congress to move on the Justice Safety Valve Act and other pending sentencing reform legislation.

Washington, DC
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Comments in the Senate Judiciary Committee provided hope that medical marijuana's banking problems may be ending, California communities continue to tussle over the issue, and a New Jersey bill is signed into law. There's more, too. Let's get to it:

National

On Tuesday, a hint came that banking issues for dispensaries may soon be resolved. Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the Senate Judiciary Committee the Justice and Treasury Departments and banking regulators were working "to deal with this in accordance with the laws on the books." Cole's comments came after several senators prodded him on the issue. [Ed: If Treasury is involved, could that mean they'll deal with the IRS dispensary audit issue too? That would be huge -- arguably the audits are the biggest threat facing the medical marijuana industry, and they could just as easily hit the legalized marijuana industry too. - DB]

California

Last Thursday, the Napa Planning Commission canceled a meeting to begin the process of repealing the city's medical marijuana ordinance. The city said it needed more time to consider the implications of a federal memorandum regarding marijuana enforcement that was issued last week by the US Justice Department. Late last month, the city council had voted to effectively ban dispensaries, but now wants to rethink. The council had opted to repeal its existing ordinance that would have allowed a dispensary. Repeal of the ordinance would effectively ban dispensaries in the city because current zoning does not permit such activity.

Last Friday, a statewide dispensary regulation bill rose from the dead. The bill, AB 604, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) was killed earlier in the year, but Ammiano reintroduced it using the "gut and amend" process to dump it into an existing measure. The effort took on added urgency after the federal government late last month unveiled its latest approach to medical marijuana and legal marijuana states. A backup bill, SB 69, was introduced the following day. Only one of them needs to pass. The legislative session ends at the end of this week.

On Monday, a judge blocked a request for an injunction to force Long Beach to count all signatures submitted by organizers of an initiative to overturn the city's dispensary ban. The Long Beach Citizens' and Patients' Rights political action committee filed petitions with 43,159 signatures in February to place an initiative on a special election ballot similar to the medical marijuana regulations the City Council passed in 2010. However, City Clerk Larry Herrera conducted a random sample of 3 percent of the signatures and found only 31,294 signatures were valid, short of the 15 percent, or 33,543 registered voters required for a special election. The political action committee then sued. But federal District Court Judge Audrey Collins ruled that Herrera "acted reasonably rather than arbitrarily or fraudulently."

Also on Monday, the El Dorado County planning commission called for a dispensary regulation ordinance. The county's moratorium on dispensaries is set to expire at the end of October. The commission objected to a proposed ordinance from supervisors that would ban all dispensaries. Because the urgency ordinance expires Oct. 30, the board needs to adopt an ordinance at its Sept. 24 meeting.

On Tuesday, the Long Beach city council agreed to draft a new dispensary ordinance. In an 8-0 vote, council members directed the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would once again allow a limited number of collectives to operate within city limits. The council debate came a day after a group seeking to overturn the city's medical marijuana ban was dealt a blow in court. A federal judge ruled officials would not have to place a medical marijuana initiative on the city's April ballot, or do a full count of more than 43,000 signatures seeking a special election.

Also on Tuesday, Merced County supervisors approved an ordinance to limit medical marijuana grows. The ordinance limits medical marijuana cultivation to 12 plants per parcel of land, regardless of the property's size, whether it's an indoor or outdoor garden, or the maturity of the plants. Despite strong support from law enforcement and elected officials, a few medical pot users on Tuesday said the ordinance unfairly groups them with people who grow marijuana for profit. The ordinance would carry stiffer civil and criminal penalties, including abatement and cleanup at the owner's expense, an administrative procedure resulting in penalties or a misdemeanor charge resulting in six months in jail and-or a $1,000 fine.

Illinois

Last Thursday, Park City imposed a 120-day moratorium on dispensaries. Alderman said they wanted to give the city time to decide where proper locations for dispensaries or cultivation facilities might be.

Michigan

Last Wednesday, medical marijuana supporters rallied in Lansing, saying police are violating state law by punishing medical marijuana users. The rally featured live entertainment and showcased people who said they had been victimized by police.

Last Thursday, the Michigan Marihuana Review Panel heard testimony on adding PTSD to the list of debilitating conditions for which medical marijuana can be used. The review is the result of a citizen petition. The panel last month voted 7-2 to approve PTSD, but still has to make a final recommendation later this year.

New Jersey

On Monday, changes to the state's medical marijuana rules passed the Assembly. The changes were demanded by Gov. Chris Christie (R) when he issued a conditional veto on a bill that would have allowed qualified children to use medical marijuana. Christie demanded that the bill be revised to require that only minors can use "edibles" and that they would have to be approved by both a psychiatrist and a physician. The bill also removes the limit on the marijuana strains that may be cultivated and requires parental permission, according to the release.

On Tuesday, Gov. Christie signed the bill.

Pennsylvania

On Monday, the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association released a new position statement on medical marijuana. "It is the position of PSNA that medical marijuana is worthy of further rigorous clinical testing," the statement said. "In order to weigh the true risks and benefits of medical marijuana, there must be a discussion and openness at the federal level regarding the conversion of marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule II drug classification. Schedule II classification would allow testing of consistent grade medical marijuana in a randomized controlled fashion in order to ascertain the drug's risk/benefit profile for a multitude of illnesses and symptoms. In addition, PSNA supports protection from prosecution for patients who currently use medicinal marijuana or for providers suggesting medicinal marijuana for relief of intractable conditions or symptoms. Lastly, PSNA shares concerns about the delivery system of smoking medication and, if this drug is approved, encourages the development of a more efficient drug delivery system." A bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state has been pending since 2009.

Washington

On Monday, officials suggested the state's dispensaries are criminal enterprises. The medical marijuana law was never intended to allow businesses to sell marijuana to patients, a task force of state officials told a legislative committee. The task force could come up with recommendations for shutting down dispensaries by January. Alternatively, the legislature could act to regulate dispensaries.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

California Sentencing Reform Bill to Go to Governor

A bill that would allow some drug possession cases to be charged as misdemeanors instead of felonies passed the state Assembly Wednesday. The bill has already passed the Senate, but most go back there for a final concurrence vote before heading to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

California prison overcrowding (US Supreme Court)
Senate Bill 649, filed by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would give local judges and prosecutors discretion on charging simple possession cases as felonies or misdemeanors. California sees about 10,000 drug possession cases each year. That figure does not include marijuana, which was decriminalized under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Passage of the bill would help reduce prison and jail overcrowding in California and potentially even provide savings to the financially-strapped courts because felony charges require setting a preliminary hearing, whereas misdemeanor offenses do not.

"We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite," Leno said after the Assembly vote. "We give nonviolent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they're incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education. SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals."

"Our system is broken," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the bill sponsors. "Felony sentences don't reduce drug use and don't persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release -- three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrate into their families and communities."

Leno's bill comes as California struggles to comply with a federal mandate to reduce prison overcrowding. Gov. Brown and Assembly Democrats have concocted a plan to use a private prison facility staffed with unionized state prison guards, but that plan is running into opposition among Democrats in the Senate, who are seeking instead to increase funding to counties that have incurred higher costs because of Brown's incarceration realignment plan, which shifts some prison inmates to county jails.

Even after realignment, there are still more than 4,100 people serving California prison time for simple drug possession. State taxpayers are paying $207 million a year to keep them there.

"Based on my 38 years in the criminal justice system, including five years presiding over an adult drug court, I've seen firsthand how fundamentally unjust it is for simple possession offenses to be charged as straight felonies when many more serious and harmful offenses are prosecuted as misdemeanors," said the Hon. Harlan Grossman, a retired Superior Court Judge from Contra Costa County. "It's time to rethink how low-level drug offenses are prosecuted in California. As a judge, I can tell you that there is nothing fair or just about a punishment that does not fit the crime."

If Gov. Brown signs the bill into law, California will be on the same path as 13 other states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government as jurisdictions that treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Those states do not demonstrate higher levels of drug use or drug crime than states that have not defelonized drug possession.

Sacramento, CA
United States

North Carolina Welfare Drug Testing Bill Moving

A bill that would require public benefits recipients to take a drug test upon suspicion they are using drugs passed the state Senate Wednesday. It had already passed the House, and now returns there for a concurrence vote after it was amended in the Senate.

The bill, House Bill 392, requires participants in the state's Work First program, which offers cash benefits, training, and support services to families, to submit to drug testing if authorities have a reasonable suspicion they are on drugs. The bill also requires stringent background checks to ensure that recipients are not probation or parole violators or have outstanding felony warrants.

The measure is part of a package of conservative bills being rammed through the Republican-dominated legislature. This session, Republicans have passed abortion restrictions tied to an anti-sharia law bill, repealed the Racial Justice Act, and disqualified the state from receiving federal funds for benefits for the long-term unemployed, in addition to hammering away at public benefits recipients with the welfare drug testing bill.

Those actions have generated weeks of Moral Mondays protests by social justice and civil rights activists. More than 700 people have been arrested to far in Moral Mondays civil disobedience at the state capitol.

Republican senators amended the bill to make it more palatable by inserting language clarifying that drug test results would remain confidential and that people who tested positive would be referred to treatment resources. They also deleted language that required county employees to tell potential recipients that they wouldn't be drug tested if they didn't apply for Work First.

"We've worked really, really hard to make this bill fair," said bill sponsor Sen. Dean Arp (R). "I hope my colleagues feel we tried to address their concerns."

He didn't convince Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Chapel Hill), the only senator who actually took to the floor to speak against the bill.

"There is no evidence that people who are getting (Work First) checks are more likely... to be drug users," she said. "This is just a stigma, and one more kicking people when they are down."

And it is a burden on county social service departments and the taxpayers, Kinnaird said. "It's an added burden time-wise, paperwork-wise," she said. "And it's an unfunded mandate."

Raleigh, NC
United States

Utah Spent $26K to Ferret Out Welfare Drug Users, Found Nine

Last year, Utah joined the handful of states that have passed laws mandating drug tests for people seeking welfare benefits. To avoid constitutional challenges, the state created a screening process to come up with a reasonable suspicion that certain welfare applicants were using drugs.

But preliminary data reported by the Salt Lake Tribune shows that of 4,425 people screened for drug use after seeking aid, only 813 were deemed to be at high risk of drug use, only 394 were actually subjected to drug testing, and of those, only nine were denied benefits because they tested positive and five are undergoing treatment.

The state spent more than $26,000 to achieve these results. It spent more than $5,000 to administer the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) test to applicants and more than $20,000 to pay for drug testing. Those figures do not include staff costs to administer the SASSI test or the costs of drug treatment.

Of the 813 SASSI test-takers who ranked high, more than 300 tested negative, 163 chose to abandon the aid application process and 137 were denied eligibility based on other criteria. Others had false positives or incorrect SASSI scores or failed to show up for the drug test.

The SASSI Institute claims its diagnostic test is 94% accurate at detecting people with a high probability of substance abuse, but the Utah numbers belie those claims. Of those assessed as likely drug or alcohol abusers by the test, only 1% actually tested positive for drugs. In the best case -- assuming that everyone who abandoned the aid application process or didn't show up for a drug test was actually using drugs -- the predictive value of the SASSI test was under 50%.

"It seems silly to drug test hundreds. It's not worth the money they're spending," Gina Cornia of Utahns Against Hunger told the Tribune, adding that welfare workers could still screen clients for substance abuse the old-fashioned way -- by forging relationships with them.

Geoffrey Landward, deputy director for Utah's Department of Workforce Services, wasn't ready to draw any conclusions.

"People can read the numbers and make their own conclusions," Landward said. "This was a policy decision made by the legislature, signed into law by the governor, and our responsibility is to execute as best we can."

Salt Lake City, UT
United States

Colorado Governor Signs Marijuana Bills

In a public ceremony at the state capitol in Denver Tuesday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed into law four bills that will establish a legal, regulated marijuana market for adults and begin the development of a regulatory framework for industrial hemp production.

The package of bills had passed the legislature earlier this month in accord with the requirements of Amendment 64, which won with 55% of the popular vote last November. That groundbreaking vote led Hickenlooper to sign an order legalizing marijuana possession and to appoint an Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force late last year, which provided guidance to the legislature. That guidance informed the legislation that followed.

House Bill 1317 and Senate Bill 283 create the framework for regulations governing marijuana retail sales, cultivation, and product manufacturing. Under the provisions of Amendment 64, the Colorado Dept. of Revenue has until July 1 to develop the specific regulations necessary for implementation.

House Bill 1318 enacts a 10% special sales tax on retail sales of non-medical marijuana (in addition to standard state and local sales taxes) and a 15% excise tax on wholesale sales of non-medical marijuana. Voters must approve the new taxes this November in accordance with Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). More than 75% of Colorado voters would support such a proposal, according to a survey conducted last month by Public Policy Polling.

Senate Bill 241 initiated the development of a regulatory framework for the commercial cultivation, processing, and distribution of industrial hemp.

"We applaud Gov. Hickenlooper for the initiative he has taken to ensure the world's first legal marijuana market for adults will entail a robust and comprehensive regulatory system" said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, who served as an official proponent of Amendment 64 and co-director of the campaign. "This marks another major milestone in the process of making the much-needed transition from a failed policy of marijuana prohibition to a more sensible system of regulation."

"Despite not supporting Amendment 64, our governor has shown true leadership by ensuring his office and the general assembly implemented the will of the voters," said Art Way, senior drug policy manager for Colorado for the Drug Policy Alliance. "These implementing pieces of legislation signed by the governor are the beginning of statewide efforts to bring marijuana above ground in a manner beneficial to public health and safety."

"Colorado is demonstrating to the rest of the nation that it is possible to adopt a marijuana policy that reflects the public's increasing support for making marijuana legal for adults," Tvert said. "Marijuana prohibition is on its way out in Colorado, and it is only a matter of time before many more states follow its lead."

"The governor has signed off for Colorado to take the lead on taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use," said Way. "I'm confident our state has, and will continue to do it responsibly. After all, we have experience and expertise in comprehensively regulating medical marijuana on a large scale. We have a blueprint."

Denver, CO
United States

Modest Changes in Obama's FY 2014 Drug Budget

The Obama administration released its Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal Wednesday, including its 2014 federal drug budget. Pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle quickly pronounced the Obama budget dead on arrival, but it does provide both a window into administration thinking on drug policy and a starting point for negotiations.

Obama's 2014 drug budget came out Wednesday. (whitehouse.gov)
There's not much new. The historic 2:1 ratio between law enforcement and interdiction spending and treatment and prevention spending, representing what critics have long called an over-reliance on enforcement, is slightly attenuated. The Obama 2014 drug budget allocates 58% of spending to enforcement vs. 42% to treatment and prevention. It is a slight improvement over the FY 2013 drug budget, where the figures were 62% and 38% -- starting to climb away from 2:1, if it continues, but not dramatically.

In a post on its web site, the Office of National Drug Control Policy's Rafael Lemaitre writes that treatment and prevention spending now tops domestic law enforcement spending, and "that's what a 21st Century approach to drug policy looks like," but that post does not include interdiction and international drug enforcement spending. When those are included, the Obama drug budget is clearly weighted on the side of law enforcement -- very much what a late 20th Century drug policy looked like.

Still, the budget calls for an 18% increase in treatment funding, and cuts in interdiction and international enforcement funding, as welling as reducing funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, which generates ever more drug arrests working with state and local drug task forces. But spending for both the DEA and Bureau of Prisons is going up, and that raised the hackles of one drug reform activist.

"The administration deserves some credit for moving this ratio slightly in the right direction over the years, but a drug control budget that increases funding for the DEA and the Bureau of Prisons is simply not the kind of strategy we need in the 21st Century," said Tom Angell, spokesman for the Marijuana Majority. "At a time when a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and states are moving to end prohibition, this president should be spending less of our money paying narcs to send people to prison, not more. If, as administration officials say, 'we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem,' then why are they continuing to devote so many resources to arresting people for drug problems?"

The administration also deserves "some credit" for reducing HIDTA funding, said Angell, but "still $193 million for the program is $193 million more than should be used to arrest people for drugs in the 21st Century."

As NYC Pot Busts Continue, New York Punts on Marijuana Reform

People -- almost all of them young people of color -- are being arrested at the rate of a thousand a week in New York City for marijuana possession "in public view," but although a legislative fix was in sight this week, the state's political establishment couldn't come to an agreement on it. Instead, the legislature is going on vacation.

The New York City "in public view" arrests violate the spirit of the Empire State's 1977 marijuana decriminalization law, which made possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense, not a criminal one. They typically occur when the NYPD stops and frisks someone, then either reaches into his pockets or belongings or intimidates the detainee into pulling out his biggie himself and then charges him with the criminal misdemeanor of possession "in public view."

Through-out the legislative session, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Senate and Assembly leaders talked about fixing the situation as part of the budget process. During his State of the State address, Cuomo had called for decriminalizing the possession of up to 15 grams "in public view," but with smoking in public remaining a misdemeanor. But on Thursday, Cuomo and the legislative leadership announced they had reached a final deal on the budget, one that didn't include marijuana law reform.

That doesn't mean decriminalization reform is dead this year -- the session will resume after a three-week hiatus -- but it is certainly delayed and possibly derailed without having the impetus of the budget agreement behind it. In either case, legislators and community activists blasted the leadership for punting on the issue while the arrests (and the costs) mount by the day.

"I am gravely disappointed that this budget failed to enact justice for the more than 44,000 individuals arrested last year based on a flawed law. Not only does allowing these arrests directly impact the lives of individuals and their communities, they are a gross misappropriation of city and state resources, and a waste of officer manpower that can be spent on more pressing law enforcement matters," said Assemblyman Karim Camara, Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. "Changing this flawed law has the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYC Police Commissioner Kelly, the District Attorneys of the five boroughs, and Buffalo and Nassau and Albany counties, the Police Benevolent Association and major law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Yet politics trumped the policy that would be best for New York City and our state."

"This is an issue that cannot wait. Our tens of thousands of youth arrested annually under unfair practices shouldn't have to wait," said Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez. "They deserve better -- they deserve justice and equality. And they deserve it now. We need to end this policy that has plagued our communities for too long  and make public view possession a violation."

"Why is it acceptable to kick the can down the road when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of young Black and Latino New Yorkers?" asked Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights community organizer for VOCAL-NY. "Getting this done is a test for the political leadership in Albany that right now they are failing. It's time to stop delaying justice when it comes to ending racially biased and costly marijuana arrests."

Since 2002, nearly 500,000 thousand people have been arrested in New York  for marijuana possession -- the vast majority of those arrests, 440,000, took place in New York City. Last year alone in the city, there were nearly 40,000 such arrests, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests in the city between 1981 and 1995. The cost to taxpayers is $75 million a year, and over $600 million in the last decade. A report released earlier this week found that the NYPD had spent one million hours making these arrests over the past decade.

"Behind the one million police hours spent arresting young Black and Latino men is the shameful truth of 21st Century racism. These are unlawful, racially biased arrests, plain and simple. We need our elected officials to stand up for civil rights for all people" said Chino Hardin, Field Coordinator and Trainer with the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.

Albany, NY
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

Marijuana Legalization Bill Introduced in Nevada

On Monday, Nevada became the latest state to see a marijuana legalization bill filed this year. Assemblyman Joe Hogan (D-Las Vegas) introduced Assembly Bill 402, which would allow people 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and would set up a system of state regulation and taxation of marijuana commerce.

Nevada now joins Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Oregon as states where legalization bills have been or will be filed. A legalization bill died earlier this year in Hawaii, and one died last week in New Hampshire, but another New Hampshire legalization bill is still alive.

The Nevada bill expressly does not allow driving while impaired, does not require employers to accept marijuana use, and limits legalization to those 21 and over.

Marijuana has already been legalized by voters in Colorado and Washington, and the Alaska courts have recognized a privacy right allowing for the possession of small amounts of marijuana in one's home. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Hogan told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he introduced the bill because of what he called the persecution of young people.

"I think it's better than chasing young kids around the neighborhoods, endlessly, and damaging them," he said. "We've been wasting terrible amounts of money on these completely unsuccessful law enforcement techniques. I think it's time to get serious, get it fixed and move on."

Hogan said that marijuana legalization would raise badly needed money for the state's education system. It envisions excise taxes on both wholesale and retail sales of marijuana and marijuana products.

"There's enough tax money in this line of products to properly and fully support education in the state of Nevada, which we have failed to do for a number of years," Hogan said.

The bill is the brainchild of Dr. Steven Frye, a retired Las Vegas psychiatrist and marijuana legalization activist. Frye told the Review-Journal legalization could generate as much as $500 million a year in tax revenues.

"It's a big tourist issue," he said. "And we create green jobs in Nevada growing, processing and selling it."

Carson City, NV
United States

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