Tag: Koch brothers

Prison Reform On Uncertain Ground In 2018

One has to wonder if Congressional dysfunction has reached a breaking point.

Imagine legislation that was drafted with the help of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and, unsurprisingly, supported by President Trump himself. Imagine that this same bill is supported by such stalwarts of “The Resistance” as the Urban League and the Equal Justice Initiative, and also backed by prominent conservative groups such as FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The Koch brothers and Grover Norquist are advocates, and so is liberal commentator Vann Jones. In fact, imagine a bill so bipartisan that it passed even this deeply divided House on a 360–59 vote.

That legislation would be the “FIRST STEP Act,” a prison-reform bill. And, this being Washington in 2018, it is almost certainly not going to become law. Indeed, it looks doubtful that the Senate will even vote on it.

The FIRST STEP Act is hardly radical. It doesn’t reduce inmate sentences or otherwise deal with the intensely punitive approach to justice that has given the United States the world’s largest per capita prison population. Nor does it remedy the ongoing racial issues that continue to infect our criminal-justice system.

Instead, it would make a number of extremely modest humanitarian reforms to the way we treat prisoners. For example, it would make female health products more available in federal prisons and all but end the practice of shackling female inmates during childbirth. It would try to keep inmate families together by expanding visits, phone privileges teleconferencing, and opportunities to transfer to prisons closer to home. It would increase mental-health and substance-abuse treatment for inmates.

It would also provide a modest $250 million over five years for new inmate-education and -rehabilitation programs, and establish incentives (including time credits) for prisoners to participate. Prisons would also be required to conduct “risk assessments” of soon-to-be-released inmates and to tailor programs to meet these inmates’ needs.

Over the long run, most experts believe the legislation would save money. For example, studies have shown that every dollar spent providing needed mental-health and substance-abuse treatment to inmates ultimately saves taxpayers $1.27 to $5.47 in reduced crime and incarceration costs. One should always be skeptical of claims that government spending will save money, but this initiative clearly passes the common-sense test. Similarly, keeping families together is likely to reduce future welfare costs as well as crime. And since nearly all prisoners will eventually be released, programs to reduce recidivism are also likely to prove cost-effective.

So why is such a modest and humane bill almost certain to die?

In part, the FIRST STEP Act is a victim of the infighting and turf protection that helps explain Congress’s 18 percent favorability rating. Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the bill, favors a much more expansive bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. Grassley and Durbin are insisting that the FIRST STEP Act be rolled into their bill. But their legislation, which is indeed worthwhile, is being blocked by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell because the White House won’t sign off on some provisions. In the meantime, prison reform goes nowhere.

An even more significant roadblock is being provided by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), who opposes nearly all efforts at criminal-justice reform. Senator Cotton, one of the few Americans who believe we have an underincarceration problem, in his words, has mounted an effective guerrilla campaign to undermine the bill’s support on the right. For example, Cotton is reportedly pushing law-enforcement groups to oppose the bill. His efforts have been drawing fruit. Recently the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association withdrew its endorsement of the bill after being pressured by Cotton’s office. Republicans, always fearful of being called “soft on crime,” will find it difficult to buck law enforcement.

Complaints about congressional gridlock are often exaggerated. The Founders intended legislating to be slow, deliberate, and challenging. But when even commonsense legislation with broad bipartisan support can’t so much as get a vote, one has to wonder if congressional dysfunction has reached a breaking point.

There is one possible way that this innovative bill could make it through Congress and onto the President’s desk. If determined members of the Senate refuse to vote in the upcoming confirmation of the candidate to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy there may be enough pressure to move the opposition out of the way.  Senators Cotton and McConnell both have vested interest in seeing a smooth confirmation hearing, and stand to lose critical local support in their home states and from the administration if their actions cause unnecessary delays or, worse, derail the confirmation entirely.

It’s a weak foundation  for prison reform advocates to stand on, but uncertain ground is better than having no place to stand at all.

Advertisements

Attorney General Sessions Tells Prosecutors To Kill Drug Dealers

On March 21, United States Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions issued a short Memo to U.S. Attorneys on the Use of Capital Punishment in Drug-Related Prosecutions. The full text of the memo states:

The opioid epidemic has inflicted an unprecedented toll of addiction, suffering, and death on communities throughout our nation. Drug overdoses, including overdoses caused by the lethal substance fentanyl and its analogues, killed more than 64,000 Americans in 2016 and now rank as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. In the face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual.

Drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and violent street gangs all contribute substantially to this scourge. To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal. This includes designating an opioid coordinator in every district, fully utilizing the data analysis of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, as well as using criminal and civil remedies available under federal law to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors accountable for unlawful practices.

In addition, this should also include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases. Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes. Among these are statutes that punish certain racketeering activities (18 U.S.C. § 1959); the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(j)); murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise (21 U.S.C. § 848(e)); and dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs (18 U.S.C. § 3591(b)(1)). I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation.

Seeking the federal death penalty against drug traffickers in “appropriate cases” where a death results would not be new.  Of the 61 federal defendants on death row, more than a dozen of them committed drug related offenses resulting in death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  Indeed, one of the three federal inmates executed in the modern era was Juan Garza, a marijuana distributer who was executed in 2001 for the murder of three other drug traffickers in Texas.

But seeking the death penalty for non-homicide drug trafficking offenses would be new and raise constitutional issues.  See, e.g., Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407, as modified (Oct. 1, 2008), opinion modified on denial of reh’g, 554 U.S. 945 (2008) (holding the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in death of the victim); id. at 44 –47 (“The rule of evolving standards of decency with specific marks on the way to full progress and mature judgment means that resort to the penalty must be reserved for the worst of crimes and limited in its instances of application. In most cases justice is not better served by terminating the life of the perpetrator rather than confining him and preserving the possibility that he and the system will find ways to allow him to understand the enormity of his offense. Difficulties in administering the penalty to ensure against its arbitrary and capricious application require adherence to a rule reserving its use, at this stage of evolving standards and in cases of crimes against individuals, for crimes that take the life of the victim.”).

New Report On Firearms Offense Sentences Released

The United States Sentencing Commission issued a report on March 15th titled Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Firearms Offenses in the Federal Criminal Justice System.  This is the third publication in the Commission’s series on mandatory minimum penalties, including the 2017 Mandatory Minimum Overview and the 2017 Drug Mandatory Minimum Report.

Yesterday’s Mandatory Minimum Firearms report uses fiscal year 2016 data and focuses on firearms offenses, the second most common federal offenses carrying mandatory minimums after drug offenses.  The report analyzes two statutes carrying minimum mandatory penalties: (1) 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (relating to using, carrying or possessing firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking or crime of violence); and (2) 18 U.S.C. 924(e), the Armed Career Criminal Act.  The publication also addresses the impact of these statutes on the Bureau of Prison’s prisoner population.

Here are some highlights from the 81-page report:

1. Firearms mandatory minimum penalties continue to result in long sentences although they have decreased since fiscal year 2010.

2. Offenders charged with and convicted of multiple counts under section 924(c)received exceptionally long sentences as a result of the statutory requirement that the sentence for each count be served consecutively.

3. In addition, other charging and plea decisions also play a significant role in theapplication and impact of firearms mandatory minimum penalties.

4. Statutory relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) for providing substantial assistance to the government plays a significant role in the application and impact of firearms mandatory minimum penalties.

5. While the rate at which firearms offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum has been stable, the number of offenders convicted of offenses carrying such penalties has decreased significantly since fiscal year 2010.

6. Firearms mandatory minimum penalties continue to impact Black offenders more than any other racial group.

 

 

Sentencing Commission Releases 2017 Federal Crime Statistics

Last week the United States Sentencing Commission released its 2017 Annual Report and 2017 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing. FY2017 encompasses the federal government’s fiscal year October 1, 2016 to September 30, 2017 and includes data on sentencings occurring during this period and reported to the Commission before February 14, 2018.  Together the Report and Sourcebook represent the annual report required by 28 U.S.C. § 997, as well as analysis, recommendations, and accounting referenced in 28 U.S.C. § 994(w)(3).

The 2017 Annual Report provides information on the Commission’s activities, such as conducting research, collecting and reporting sentencing data, sentencing policy development (i.e., guideline amendments), and training and outreach.

The 273-page 2017 Sourcebook contains sentencing statistics on a wide range of variables—such as length of sentences and adjustments for various primary offenses—in each federal judicial circuit and district, reflected in tables, figures, and pie charts.  The information in the Sourcebook is also available in the Commission’s online resource Interactive Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics. The data in the interactive sourcebook can be tailored to any district or group of districts.  Here are some highlights from the Sourcebook data:

  • In FY 2017, the courts reported 66,873 felony and Class A misdemeanor cases to the Commission. This represents a decrease of 869 cases from the prior fiscal year.
  • The race of federal offenders remained largely unchanged from prior years. In FY 2017, 53.2 percent of all offenders were Hispanic, 21.5 percent were White, 21.1 percent were Black, and 4.2 percent were of another race. Non-U.S. citizens accounted for 40.7 percent of all offenders.
  • Drug cases accounted for the largest single group of offenses in FY 2017, comprising 30.8 percent of all reported cases. Cases involving immigration, firearms, and fraud were the next most common types of offenses after drug cases. Together these four types of offenses accounted for 82.4 percent of all cases reported to the Commission in FY 2017.
  • Among drug cases, offenses involving methamphetamine were most common, accounting for 34.6 percent of all drug cases.
  • Drug sentences remained relatively stable across all drug types in fiscal year 2017. The average length of imprisonment increased slightly from FY 2016 in cases involving methamphetamines, from 90 months to 91 months, and also in marijuana cases, from 28 months to 29 months. In fiscal year 2017, 44.2 percent of drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.

 

Study Reveals No Relationship Between Prison Terms For Drug Offenses And Rates Of Drug Use, Arrests, Or Overdose Deaths

The PEW Charitable Trusts issued a brief, earlier this month,  reporting on the relationship between prison terms and the reduction in rates of drug use, arrests, and overdose deaths.

The analysis found no statistically significant relationship between drug imprisonment rates and three indicators of state drug problems: drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests. “In other words, higher rates of drug imprisonment did not translate into lower rates of drug use, arrests, or overdose deaths.” The PEW study also revealed that in states that had revised their drug penalties, prison populations had been reduced without an increase in crime rates.

Additionally, in South Carolina, after the state expanded probation and parole opportunities for people convicted of drug offenses, the prison population decreased by 14 percent, a larger proportion of the state’s inmates were convicted of violent offenses, and the violent crime rate dropped by 16 percent between 2010 and 2015.

The brief concluded that research revealed that “some strategies for reducing drug use and crime are more effective than others and that imprisonment ranks near the bottom of the list.”