Tag Archives: sentence reform

Could Sessions’ War on Pot Light Up Congress? – Update for February 8, 2018

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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SESSIONS UPSETS CONGRESS WITH CHANGE IN POT POLICY

sessions180119Last week, after Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III gave federal prosecutors free rein to begin marijuana busts even state law allows possession and sale, dozens of lawmakers from both parties are seeking legislation that would handcuff Sessions on pot.

“It has awakened a sleeping giant,” Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) said of the Congressional response to Sessions repealing the Cole memorandum, a policy from the Obama administration that tolerated pot companies in states that legalized the drug. “The move by Sessions on the Cole memo has really activated people who were not active before, both inside Congress and across the country,” Rohrabacker was quoted as saying by BuzzFeed News.

Last Tuesday, 54 lawmakers sent President Trump a letter asking him to honor his campaign promise to leave marijuana “up to the states” and override Sessions. A few weeks earlier, 69 lawmakers — including 15 Republicans — sent House leadership a letter urging them to adopt an amendment in the next annual spending bill.

marijuana160818The measure would prevent the Justice Department from using any funds to interfere with a state’s marijuana legalization scheme, similar to prior thereby staving off Sessions. There is precedent for this. Since December 2014’s passage of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, Congress has effectively prohibited federal prosecution for medical marijuana sale and use that complies with state law by denying DOJ the right to spend any money to prosecute for conduct that complies with state law. Congress has the power to do the same for recreational marijuana laws, and courts have recognized that the spending ban prevents DOJ prosecution of people in those states.

Anything that drives a wedge between Congress and Sessions lessens the extent of the AG’s influence in keeping Congress from enacting sentencing reform (although it still leaves the President to mollify).

BuzzFeed, Jeff Sessions is making Congress mad with his pot policy, and it may backfire (Jan. 29, 2018)

United States v. McIntosh, 833 F.3d 1163 (9th Cir. 2016)

– Thomas L. Root

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President Throws His Weight (Sort of) Behind Prison Reform – Update for February 5, 2018

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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TRUMP BACKS PRISON (NOT SENTENCING) REFORM

education180205During his State of the Union address last Tuesday, President Trump said his administration will pursue reforms to federal prison system reentry programs. “As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens,” Trump said. “That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”

Trump brought up prison reform again last Thursday in a speech to GOP legislators during their retreat in West Virginia. “We can reform our prison system to help those who have served their time get a second chance at life,” he told the lawmakers.

A sharp split remains in Congress over sentencing reform, but there seems to be a consensus on prison reform. The difference between the two is this: sentencing reform focuses on reducing potential sentences – including mandatory minimums – while prison reform offers more reentry programs in prison, for which prisoners could get up extra days off for completing approved programs.

reform160201Trump’s comments are a change in tone for the President, who made tough-on-crime talk a standard of his 2016 presidential campaign. But even as he embraces prison reform, Trump suggests his Administration might seek tougher drug laws in response to the opioid crisis.

Supporters of reform are expressing cautious optimism that a deal can be made to improve conditions in federal prisons, bolster anti-recidivism efforts and allow federal prisoners to earn “time credits” for making it through education or other programs, despite legislative clashes over immigration and opioids and the impending midterm elections. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Georgia), an author of the bipartisan Prison Reform and Redemption Act (H.R. 3356), called the moment of apparent consensus “a unique opportunity.”

Ohio State University law prof and sentencing expert Doug Berman wrote last week that while “‘back-end’ prison reforms to facilitate earlier release from prison for all federal offenders and enhanced reentry efforts are quite possible and may truly be a priority for the Trump Administration; it would also seem that “front-end” sentencing reforms to reduce mandatory minimum terms for drug trafficking offenses many not be possible and may be actively opposed by the Trump Administration.”

The New Republic said that “reducing mandatory minimums and over-criminalization will be a tough sell, while programs to help prisoners re-enter society and find jobs could find a receptive audience in the White House.” However, the Administration cut back on BOP education programs last May, and further BOP job cuts may make it hard for the agency to find enough people to direct rehabilitation programs. Fewer staff means fewer programs means fewer qualified courses means fewer additional good-time credits. The New Republic said, “It would be a Nixon-in-China moment if Trump genuinely tried to combat mass incarceration—which is to say, it’s highly unlikely.”

nixon180205Yet less than a week later, the same author in the same magazine suggested that “Trump’s rhetoric of late gives hope for bipartisan efforts in Congress to push through a criminal-justice reform bill this year. While Trump prides himself as a master dealmaker, he’s been content to let Republican lawmakers and his top advisers sketch the details of major legislation on health care, tax reform, and immigration. As long as he’s not actively hostile to whatever lawmakers send him, reformers could find Trump more amenable to the final package if they can convince him it’s a win.”

Reason.com, Trump says in SOTU that Administration will pursue prison reforms (Jan. 30, 2018)

Gant News, ‘American carnage’ President presides over prison reform push (Feb. 2, 2018)

Sentencing Law and Policy, Prez Trump, in his first State of the Union address, mentions “reforming our prisons” and need to “get much tougher on drug dealers” (Jan. 30, 2018)

The New Republic, Is Trump serious about prison reform? (Jan. 30, 2018)

The New Republic, A Chance for Criminal-Justice Reform Under Trump (Feb. 5, 2018)

– Thomas L. Root

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Lots of Heat Generated Last Week on Sentence Reform – But is There Light? – Update for January 16, 2018

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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TRUMP HOLDS WHITE HOUSE MEETING ON SENTENCING REFORM

justicereform161128President Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, met with criminal justice reform advocates last Thursday on prison reform and re-entry, as well as the successes states such as Georgia, Kansas and Kentucky have had in enacting programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates and rehabilitating inmates. The White House described the meeting as being intended to explore strategies to “equip nonviolent prisoners with the skills and opportunities needed for an honest second chance to correct their course in life and return to society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”

Trump said his administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law abiding members of society. “Two-thirds of the 650,000 people released from prison each year are arrested again within three years. We can help break this vicious cycle through job training, very important, job training, mentoring and drug addiction treatment… We’ll be very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity for the future.”

A White House official told The Hill that prison reform was discussed at the presidential retreat at Camp David a week ago weekend and that the Administration has been hosting roundtable discussions on prison reform and re-entry since last summer.

Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III
Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III – like inviting the fox to a meeting on chicken coop security.

Guests at Thursday’s meeting included Matt Schlapp, board chairman of the American Conservative Union; Brooke Rollins, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation; Republican Governors Matt Bevin (Kentucky) and Sam Brownback (Kansas); Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden; and Shon Hopwood, a former federal inmate who is now an associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a member of the FAMM Board of Directors. Thursday’s discussion also included Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and Trump’s chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly.

The meeting emboldened some advocates who saw it as a sign the White House is officially on board with criminal justice reform. “It has long been an excuse used on the Hill that we need to see where the White House is on this issue and this is the positive signal the folks on the Hill have been waiting on,” said Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network. “I don’t think there’s going to be any more justifications to hold up this legislation,” she said.

Holden came away from the meeting with a sense of optimism. The President Trump was an active participant during the 45-minute session. “I saw some passion there,” he said. “He seemed like he got the issue, understood it and connected with it.” Holden said he hopes prison reform can be the start to broader federal criminal justice reform.

Rollins said, “I really think the White House is looking at lots of different avenues forward,” from congressional action to executive orders. Sessions, who has criticized granting leniency to drug offenders and supports mandatory minimums, suggested at the meeting he might be open to compromise on ideas such as job training. “The president talking about prison reform is a good thing,” said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM.

The meeting was not without its critics. Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said, “more re-entry programming, the kind Kushner is suggesting, would be welcome, but a sole focus on that initiative reveals two grievous flaws. First, the programming provisions being discussed on Capitol Hill contain no funding allocation. Apparently, there is hope that faith-based organizations will emerge to provide these services pro bono… Second, dropping the sentencing provisions of the Grassley-Durbin legislation from the Trump administration’s reform conversations guarantees that there will be no significant inroads made into reversing mass incarceration. Thousands of federal drug defendants will be sentenced to decades of incarceration and resources will be squandered that could more effectively be directed to prevention and treatment initiatives.”

trump180116Others have objected that the meeting does not include any liberal groups. However, an anonymous conservative participant told Reuters that “excluding organizations that are seen as liberal, like the ACLU or the NAACP, and leaving out sentencing reform was necessary to gain thetea leaves, I think what they’ve done is sat down with Mr. Sessions and got him to agree to part of the reforms,” said the conservative leader, who requested anonymity in order to freely discuss the issue.

Meanwhile, the American Bar Association sent a letter to Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Diane Feinstein (D-California), in support of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. ABA President Hilarie Bass said that while the ABA was “disappointed by the inclusion of some new mandatory minimum sentencing provisions in the current draft, we believe that S. 1917 will, overall, create a more just criminal justice system than the one currently in place. Enactment will help focus prosecutorial and correctional resources on offenders who commit serious crimes that pose the greatest risk to public safety and will permit more sentencing flexibility for low-level, nonviolent offenders whose role and culpability will now receive more careful and balanced consideration by sentencing judges. It will also expand recidivism-reducing programs and juvenile justice reform to make sure that those in prison have a chance to reintegrate into society.”’

Finally, Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) were both named to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Sen. Booker has sponsored criminal justice reform legislation in the past, and is a co-sponsor of SRCA17. Sen. Harris has occasionally supported criminal justice reform, such as when she joined with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to back bail reform.

harris180116Some question Sen. Harris’s sincerity, however. As San Francisco’s district attorney and then as California’s attorney general, Harris rarely strayed far from a punitive law-and-order mentality. Last week, Reason warned that “Criminal justice reformers shouldn’t get their hopes up that she’ll be a reliable ally. During her time as San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris oversaw the city’s mismanaged crime lab. A San Francisco superior court judge ruled that the D.A.’s office ignored demands that it take responsibility for the lab’s failings, and that it violated defendants’ rights by hiding information about a corrupt technician who had been stealing cocaine.”

The Hill, Trump, Kushner meet with advocates on prison reform (Jan. 11, 2018)

Newsweek, Trump and Kushner’s prison reform plan not expected to reduce sentences or fix prison conditions (Jan. 11, 2018)

Reason.com, Kamala Harris: No Friend to Criminal Justice Reform (Jan. 12, 2018)

– Thomas L. Root LISAStatHeader2small

“Let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” – Update for December 26, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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AND YOU WONDER WHY…

cromwell171226Oliver Cromwell threw out the Rump Parliament with criticism that seems altogether contemporary, given the diatribes that come from the Right against the Left and the Left against the Right. But we tend to be single-issue voters, so our interest is not so much pro-Trump or anti-Trump as it is pro-common sense on sentencing reform.

A few weeks ago, we reported that Rex Tillerson might get dumped as Secretary of State, a matter of little importance to most of us except that the shuffling that might occur as a result would move Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) to the CIA.

For those of you who yawned at our report on Potomoc machinations, the following report may explain our enthusiasm for moving Sen. Cotton as far from a vote on sentencing reform as he can get. Legislation that would update and overhaul the nation’s juvenile justice system has stalled over a single Republican senator’s concern over whether youths should be locked up for low-level status offenses. The bills, already passed in the House and Senate (and now in conference committee to smooth out differences), have come to a screeching halt because of one senator – Tom Cotton.

kidsjail171226Sen. Cotton likes seeing children thrown into kiddie jail, and he has thus long opposed measures that would keep youthful offenders from being locked up for violating piddling offenses like curfew and school attendance. In fact, he was able to see that the Senate version of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act did not soften laws that jailed minors for insignificant offenses. But the House version phases out all incarceration for such “status offenses” — including judicial orders — over the next three years.

Now, Sen. Cotton has refused to let the very bipartisan bill go to conference without a guarantee that the status offenses provision is a dead issue. “We have to get around Cotton, who won’t move,” said Marcy Mistrett, chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice, which supports the House bill. “He’s been very clear on that.”

Staffers for Reps. Jason Lewis (R-Minnesota) and Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) have been working to resolve Sen. Cotton’s concerns, a GOP House aide said.

Rep. Lewis and co-sponsor Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), “are encouraging the Senate to move quickly to conference so that we can iron out the small differences between the two bills, and get the president a bill with vital reforms to the juvenile justice system.”

cotton171226That, in a nutshell, is why Sen. Cotton, who was opposed to the Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 a year ago, is so toxic to the chances of sentencing reform in the next few months. New York Times columnist and curmudgeonly conservative William Safire once was criticized for calling President Nixon a pimple on the ass of progress. He apologized, admitting that his description was wrong. “I should have said ‘boil’,” he ruefully admitted.

Thus to Sen. Cotton.

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Sen. Cotton Blocking Juvenile Justice Update Bill from Conference Committee (Dec. 15, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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Sentence Reform – Wither Goest Thou? – Update for October 30, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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LISA DOES A ROAD TRIP 2

roadtrip171027We reported last Friday on our trip to Washington for the “Advancing Justice, An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety,” a conference sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute.

Today’s installment is Part 2 of our coverage:

SPEAKERS HINT AT SRCA PROSPECTS

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S.1917) is currently before a subcommittee of Senator Charles Grassley’s Judiciary Committee, but we’ve been there before. The 2015 version of the SRCA was approved by the Judiciary Committee, only to die on the Senate floor because leadership refused to bring it to a vote during a presidential election season.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the man with his hand on the Judiciary Committee throttle.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the man with his hand on the Judiciary Committee throttle.

What is lost in the story of the 2015-16 attempts to pass SRCA is that the bill that came out of the Committee was not the same bill that went in. Instead, a lot of the retroactivity written into the bill as drafted was taken out to please law-and-order conservatives like then-Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (now Attorney General) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas).

Sen. Grassley, one of the SRCA sponsors, said at the Advancing Justice conference that the drafters of SRCA17 “kept the package balanced,” taking into account the views of the prior bill’s critics. He said that to those “wanting reasonable compromise, we will be willing partners.”

Sen. Grassley cited a number of pending criminal justice reform bills, including the Smarter Sentencing Act (S.1933), the Mens Rea Reform Act (S.1902) and the CORRECTIONS Act (S.1994), implying that one comprehensive piece of sentencing reform legislation may emerge from the Judiciary Committee that includes pieces of many or all of these bills.

Sen. Grassley’s favorable reference to the Smarter Sentencing Act is a lot different from what he thought two years ago, when he denounced “the arguments for the Smarter Sentencing Act [as] merely a weak attempt to defend the indefensible.” In fact, his complaint that mandatory minimum laws are “too severe” and give prosecutors too much discretion is a major change from 2015, when he complained in a Senate speech about the dangers of the “leniency industrial complex” and “a growing public misconception that mandatory sentences for drug offenders needed to be reduced.”

stars171030So are the stars aligned differently in this Congress? Marc Levin ot the Texas Public Policy Institute told a session on the future of sentencing reform that “part of the strategy is to have as comprehensive a [sentencing reform] package as possible, without making perfect the enemy of the good.” Both left- and right-wing politicians are working on sentencing reform, and Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden thinks that Attorney General Sessions will not be an impediment to the bill’s passage, despite what Levin called Sessions’ “real difference of opinion” on sentencing reform.

One potential stumbling block may be the Mens Rea Reform Act (S.1902). That Act would add a default rule for juries, requiring them to find criminal intent for federal offenses that don’t explicitly have an intent standard. If enacted, the Act would specify a default state of mind of “willfully,” and would require that unless the statute specified otherwise, AUSAs would have to prove the state of mind for every element of the offense. For example, a felon-in-possession charge under 18 USC 922(g) (which does not specify a state of mind) would require proof that the defendant possessed a gun that had traveled in interstate commerce intending to break the law. Currently, the government only must show the defendant knew he or she possessed a gun, not that the gun had traveled interstate and not that he or she knew the law prohibited possession.

mensrea160124Conservatives and criminal-defense organizations argue the measure is a necessary part of the congressional effort to reform sentencing and incarceration. Some Senate Democrats, however, fear the measure is far too sweeping and could be a back-door attack on federal regulations that police corporate behavior.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D – Rhode Island), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told the Atlantic magazine last week that he wouldn’t support a sentencing reform bill containing the change in mens rea proposed by the MRRA. “It would turn me into a warrior against it,” he said. Chuck Schumer (New York), the Democratic leader in the Senate, also was quoted as saying he would oppose such a bill.

Ohio State University law professor and sentencing expert Douglas Berman wrote pessimistically last Friday about the effect the MRRA could have on sentencing reform:

I have said before and will say again that this kind of opposition to a reform designed to safeguard a fundamental part of a fair and effective federal criminal justice system shows just how we got to a world with mass incarceration and mass supervision and mass collateral consequences.  Nobody seems willing or able to understand that making life easier for prosecutors anywhere serves to increase the size and reach and punitiveness of our criminal justice systems everywhere.  In turn, if you want a less extreme and severe criminal justice system anywhere, the best way to advance the cause is by seeking and advocating to limit government prosecutorial powers everywhere.

Sentencing Law & Policy, Is it time for new optimism or persistent pessimism on the latest prospects for statutory federal sentencing reform? (Oct. 28, 2017)

The Atlantic, Could a Controversial Bill Sink Criminal-Justice Reform in Congress? (Oct. 26, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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Talking Sentence Reform At “Advancing Justice” – Update for Friday, October 27, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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LISA DOES A ROAD TRIP

roadtrip171027We were in Washington, D.C., yesterday for the “Advancing Justice, An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety,” a conference sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute.

“Advancing Justice” featured a thundering herd of prosecutors, public defenders, economists, doctors and law professors who focused on federal sentencing reform, over-criminalization, the opioid crisis, and effective rehabilitation.

Charles Koch, one of the often-denounced conservative Koch brothers (Koch Industries), is one of the staunchest sentencing reform supporters in the country. Through the Charles Koch Foundation, he has put his money where his mouth is, and bankrolled reforms that have or will have broad support from the right and the left.

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SRCA SPONSORS MAKE THEIR CASE

The Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2107 would pass the Senate with 70 votes if it were voted on today, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) told the Advancing Justice conference yesterday.

advj171027The SRCA introduced in 2015 passed Sen. Grassley’s committee 15-5, and both he and Sen. Lee said it would have overwhelmingly passed the Senate had it been brought to a vote. Sen. Grassley said “election year pressures” were responsible for the bill stalling. Mark Holden, Koch Industries general counsel – who spearheaded Koch pressure in favor of the 2015 version of SRCA – was blunter about it: “Presidential politics killed the last Sentence Reform and Corrections Act,” he told one of the sessions focusing on the future of federal sentence reform.

Holden and Sen. Grassley separately noted that there is support within the Trump Administration for a reform bill. Holden noted that while it was well known that White House advisor Jared Kushner – President Trump’s son-in-law – supported sentencing reform because his father had done time for a white-collar offense – others in the Administration support it as well. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Housing Secretary Ben Carson are strong supporters of the measure. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the Speaker of the House, is “very passionate” about sentence reform, Holden said.

Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III
Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III

Most of the attention has been focused on Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who reportedly opposes sentencing reform. Holden suggested Sessions “not a real negative.” Sessions’ job, as he acknowledged at his confirmation hearing, is to enforce the laws, not make them. “He has his opinion,” Holden said. Sen. Lee told the conference that Sessions, with whom Lee served in the Senate until early this year, “is willing to work with us on sentencing reform” despite the fact Sessions voted against SRCA15 because he argued it went too far in reducing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes.

Sen. Grassley said he had supported tougher sentencing in the 1980s and 90s, including mandatory minimum legislation, because it was the right solution to the rising crime rate at the time. But now, he admits “it makes sense to revisit” the laws. He said mandatory minimums are “too severe” and give prosecutors too much discretion in charging. Noting that 25% of DOJ budget is now spent on prisons, Sen. Grassley said the SRCA would “free up federal resources and give prisoners a chance to reform.”

Sen. Lee agreed. “We have finite resources to fight crime. The more spent on prisons, the less is left for enforcement, making communities safer… What we’re doing now on sentencing is not working,” said Sen. Lee, a former federal prosecutor.

He challenged those who oppose reform proposals to share their ideas. “We have to get to the politicians on this.” He said legislators are looking at how to properly identify low-level nonviolent drug offenders. Contrary to AG Sessions’ view, Sen. Lee said the act of drug trafficking “itself is not violent.”

moses171027“The federal sentencing laws were not handed down from Mt. Sinai,” Sen. Lee said. The SRCA is “just a matter of common sense and sound public policy.” The problem, Lee and Holden suggested, was that SRCA supporters will run into the charge that they are “soft on crime.”

“We are going to have address the argument that ‘you are soft on crime’,” Sen. Lee said. “There are not the same market drivers in the federal sphere” as in state criminal justice reform. States cannot “kick the can down the road” like Congress can. At the state level, Sen. Lee said, the argument is to be “smart on crime, soft on taxpayers.” At the federal level, it “still works to be tough on crime. But every state that has done [sentence reform] had reduced crime rates and saved money.”

Axios, an online news site, reported that Lee said to a reporter afterwards that he wants a vote on SRCA before the end of the year, but with health care and tax reform in focus, the criminal justice reform bill has yet to be a priority.

The Crime Report, Federal Sentencing Reform Alive, Senators Insist (Oct. 27, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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What’s New Is Old in Criminal Justice Reform – Update for October 4, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

Two bills looking to reshape the nation’s criminal justice system were introduced this week, and all of sudden, criminal justice advocates are partying like it’s 2015.

party171004Leading the pack, a pack of influential senators led by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) announced the introduction of S. 1917, the Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2017.  SRCA17 – a retread of the Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 – is aimed at easing sentences for some federal offenders, such as for drug crimes, while beefing up other tough-on-crime laws. The measure would get rid of the federal three-strike law mandatory life sentence for some repeat drug offenders, three-strike but would also allow some people with previous convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies to face enhanced penalties.

“This bill strikes the right balance of improving public safety and ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system,” said Grassley, who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It is the product of much thoughtful deliberation, and we will continue to welcome input from stakeholders as we move forward.”

obtaining-clemencySRCA17 reportedly reduces the enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provisions for some offenders; expands the existing safety valve to offenders with more extensive criminal histories, and creates a second safety valve that gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum; expands the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for violent firearm offenders to those with prior federal or state firearm offenses but reduces that mandatory minimum to provide courts with greater flexibility in sentencing; requires the Dept of Justice to conduct risk assessments to classify all federal inmates and to use the results to assign inmates to appropriate recidivism reduction programs, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs, permitting prisoners who successfully complete these programs to get early release and to spend up to 25% of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house; and provides for a report and inventory of all federal criminal offenses.

Sen. Grassley has not revealed his scheduling plan for marking up SRCA17. Its 2015 predecessor passed the Judiciary Committee 15-5 during the last Congress, but never reached a floor vote due to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who did not want the measure voted on during the contentious 2016 presidential campaign.

A bipartisan coalition of legislators supports SRCA17, including Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott (both R-South Carolina), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey).

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The Attorney General, whom President Trump says is “an idiot,” will likely oppose SRCA17.

SRCA17 will enjoy support from White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, who is interested in reforming the federal criminal justice system and previously has met with senators about the issue. The bill will undoubtedly be opposed by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man recently described by President Trump as an idiot, who helped kill SRCA15 when he was a senator.

Meanwhile, five Republican senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee (both of Utah), Rand Paul (Kentucky), David Perdue (Georgia) introduced S. 1902, the Mens Rea Reform Act, on Monday. The MRRA would prevent the government from convicting someone of a federal crime without proving they committed the crime “knowingly and willfully.”

This is the second time Republicans in Congress have introduced “mens rea” reform, presenting a similar bill in 2015 that never made it out of committee.

Daily Caller, October 3, 2017: Senate Republicans team with Democrats in another push for soft sentencing

Politico, October 4, 2017: Senators unveil bipartisan criminal justice reform package

The Daily Signal, October 3, 2017: Criminal justice reform is alive and well in Congress

– Thomas L. Root

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Congress to Try, Try Again on Sentencing Reform – Update for September 21, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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WE’RE BACK, BABY!

wereback170921After serving as a showpiece for what great bipartisanship can accomplish, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 foundered on the shoals of presidential campaign politics last year, never making it to a floor vote in the Senate due to the fears of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) that the vote could tarnish Republicans at the polls.

The bill, originally introduced in 2015, would cut mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses and armed career criminals while increasing mandatory minimums for other offenses such as domestic violence. The bill was watered down early on in the process to satisfy law-and-order senators by eliminating any retroactive provisions. In other words, changing the law so that newly convicted people would not face unintended “stacked” mandatory minimums made sense, but relieving sentences of people who were given those “stacked” sentences the day before the bill passed did not.

flipflop170920Watered down or not, the SRCA fell to demagoguery from the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who supported the measure before he started running for president, but then opposed it on the campaign trail. An even greater foe was then-Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who is now Attorney General.

Nevertheless, building on the Senate’s success in repealing Obamacare and passing comprehensive tax reform, some U.S. senators are now planning to take a second stab at passing a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill after it stalled amid GOP infighting. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Tuesday that they will reintroduce the SRCA, but they did not specify exactly when.

“While the political landscape in Washington has changed, the same problems presented by the current sentencing regime remain,” Grassley said. Despite the fact the bill has been worked on now over three different congresses, Durbin believes it the “best chance in a generation to right the wrongs of a badly broken system.”

The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2015, with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) – one of the co-sponsors – predicting it would come to a floor vote soon afterwards. As Senate law-and-order conservatives started taking whacks at it, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) questioned whether the House would even be willing to debate the version of SRCA the Senate was cooking up. The bill died with the end of the last congress.

Starting with the day after its death last January, Grassley and Durbin began expressing interest in reviving the criminal justice bill. Along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), reportedly met with President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner last March to discuss the issue. Kushner has a special interest in federal criminal justice reform.

sessions170918The push to pass the criminal justice reform bill could set up a potential fight with the Dept. of Justice, and Sessions, who was one of the leading opponents against the legislation when he was a member of the Senate. It is not known how much influence the AG still has with the President, who thinks Sessions is both “weak” and an “idiot.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), another supporter of the criminal justice reform effort, speculated last January that Sessions as attorney general would have as a chief objective enforcing what Congress sends him — even if he disagrees with it — rather than slipping into the role of legislator and try to change the laws. “He’s going to be focused on being the nation’s top law enforcement official,” Tillis said. “I don’t necessarily see him weighing in heavily on public policy choices that President Trump makes.”

The Hill, Senators to reintroduce bipartisan criminal justice bill (Sept. 19, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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Rethinking Prisology’s “Hail Mary” – Update for July 11, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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“RE-PRISE” OLOGY

Last week, we reviewed (and roundly criticized) the nonprofit Prisology for its current effort to convince the United States Sentencing Commission to adopt a new, kinder and gentler sentencing table (Chapter 5A of the Guidelines).

trump170717We questioned the efficacy of an online letter-signing campaign, arguing that – unlike the 2014 drug quantity 2-level reduction – there is no consensus for changing the Table right now, and indeed a Justice Department led by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, would likely be quite hostile to the effort. We pointed out that even if such a change were to be effected, the likelihood of a new Sentencing Table being made retroactive was less likely than Trump giving up Twitter. We feared that the effort would provide false hope to inmates, and wondered whether Prisology might be pumping up its contacts list by soliciting the names, addresses, emails and phone numbers of people signing its online petition.

Yesterday, we got a call from Brandon Sample, president of Prisology and a well-known federal post-conviction attorney. Our conversation was extended and cordial. While Brandon did not convince us that Prisology’s effort was not just tilting at windmills, and while we did not convince him that our Eeyore-like pessimism was justified, we thought much of what he said was worth recounting. Thus, today’s Reprise on Prisology.

eeyorelisa170711We suggested last week that Prisology was taking an outsized piece of credit for the Sentencing Commission’s 2014 2-level reduction, when in fact it was more likely that the much larger Families Against Mandatory Minimums – which also claimed a leadership role in convincing the Commission to drop the drug levels – had pulled the laboring oar. Brandon disagreed, reporting to us that Prisology came early to that party, delivering “tens of thousands” letters in support of the reduction to the Commission. He said that FAMM’s 2014 efforts on the 2-level reduction were surprisingly minimal, and its after-the-fact claim that it had been out front on it was exaggerated.

We have no reason to doubt Brandon’s explanation, and several reasons to accept it.  We heard from one inmate reader who recalled the 2014 campaign vividly:

As a person who was around and ‘in the trenches’ behind bars when the drugs minus two amendment cycle was happening I can state that FAMM’s letter writing campaign was only a 3rd of what Prisology’s was.  FAMM had people mailing letters directly to the sentencing commission, and if memory serves they provided a template.  Prisology, on the other hand, had people mailing a template letter (similar to what they have now) directly to Prisology so that they could deliver them in a lump sum (more impactful) to the sentencing commission.  They ended up delivering right around 50,000 letters. Double what ever FAMM could have.

sizzle170711What both Brandon and our reader described reminds us of a phenomenon we have observed several times over FAMM’s 27-year history. FAMM started at a kitchen table: now, it is big. Some 70,000-supporters big. FAMM has a nice budget, paid staff, and a PR machine. This is fine, exactly what a nonprofit Washington-based advocacy group should have.  With size can come institutional bias, tunnel vision on issues, and all too often an instinct for self-preservation that makes the organization too quick to adopt a not-invented-here philosophy and a disdain for any other group working in the same arena. People are like that: organizations are like that, too.  At times, we have thought FAMM cared more about the sizzle than it did the steak.

We also suggested that Prisology had seemed to be dormant since 2014. Brandon admitted that the group was not grinding out press releases during that time, so that a review of the website might make it seem so. Part of that problem results from Prisology lacking the well-tuned and professional media shop that larger organizations (such as FAMM) keep humming with self-adulatory releases.

However, Brandon argues, press releases or not, Prisology remained active after 2014, spearheading among other things Freedom of Information Act litigation against the Bureau of Prisons (something of which we were aware) and maintaining a focus on the Sentencing Commission and congressional initiatives during the period. He makes a good point. Maybe our reviewing Prisology’s website for news releases was not the best metric. Judging an organization’s activity by counting the number of press releases may be sort of like judging the quality of a college football program by the quality of the band. You would be right some of the time – USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama and Auburn all have large, lavish marching bands. But the best bands in the nation also include Tennessee, Ohio University (the Bobcats) and perennial Big 10 doormat Purdue. Like the statisticians say, there just ain’t any correlation.

purdue170711We also talked to Brandon about the D.C. Circuit debacle on the Prisology FOIA suit last spring. We said at the time we could not figure out how the organization could have made such a rookie mistake on standing. Brandon explained Prisology’s strategy, based on the principle that if an agency is by law supposed to make something available in the public reading room, you shouldn’t have to ask for it as a condition of filing suit. It’s not what we would have suggested, Article III standing seeming to us to be a somewhat different issue than whether FOIA should make you ask for something that ought to be available without asking. But for the same reason Strickland v. Washington holds that lawyers’ strategic choices are largely immune from ineffective assistance of counsel claims, we defer to Prisology’s strategic choice.

Brandon says that Prisology is not done, and it intends to make another run at compelling the BOP to honor its FOIA obligations. It always bothered us that Wile E. Coyote would only try something once, fail at it, and then – instead of tweaking the technique – move on to something completely different. Fortunately, Prisology is no Wile E. Coyote. We think the FOIA issue Prisology raised has merit, and needs to be heard.

That leaves our concern that Prisology may be using the online petition gambit to build an email and phone list for fundraising. Brandon says no. Despite the fact Prisology has collected untold riches from donors in the past – probably a couple hundred bucks total, Brandon says – he says that none of the information gathered for the Sentencing Commission letters will be used for any purposes other than to file with the Commission. Comparing Prisology’s modest “donate” buttons to FAMM’s neon-light-at-midnight “DONATE TO FAMM” button, we think it’s pretty clear that emptying donors’ wallets is not a primary mission at Prisology.

hailmary170613We still have serious doubts about the likelihood that Prisology’s “Hail Mary” pass on the Sentencing Table will work, and – if it does – that it will ever be retroactive. And we would prefer that the sentencing reform community turn a laser-like focus on an issue likely to be adopted and made retroactive. But while we still caution that people should not be getting hopes up that the Prisology effort will soon deliver lower sentences to just about everyone, we nevertheless salute its effort.

More important, based on Prisology’s promise that the information it collects will not be abused, we think that having family and friends complete the online letter does not harm, and may advance,  sentence reform efforts.

– Thomas L. Root

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Easter Bunny, Unicorns, and Low-Level Drug Offenders Don’t Exist! – Update for May 31, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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 DOG BITES MAN

Dogbite160314The debate over the May 10th release by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of a new directive that effectively cancels the 2014 Holder memorandum continues to rage. Predictably, federal prosecutors love the Sessions Memo. Dog bites man!

Last week, to the shock and amazement of absolutely no one, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys – the private association of AUSAs that helped sink federal sentencing reform last year by arguing that there is no such thing as a nonviolent drug offender – now argues that there’s no such thing as a low-level drug offender in the federal system, and that all the Sessions Memo does is to force prosecutors to carry out the will of Congress.

“There’s nothing… other than Eric Holder’s own personal opinion of what he considered to be a low-level offender, that provides that we should ignore the law,” Steve Wasserman, NAAUSA treasurer, told reporters last Thursday. He argued that the law as written by Congress already includes several “safety valve” provisions, and the discretion given to senior prosecutors under the Sessions Memo already provides ample avenues for sparing the truly deserving from long terms in prison.

The mandatory minimum sentences that sentencing reform advocates and their supporters in the media oppose, he said, apply only to weights that are atypical of personal use or small-scale dealing. Besides, even when mandatory minimums do cut in, NAAUSA argued, that “doesn’t necessarily mean that the person initially charged with the mandatory minimum is going to end up with the mandatory minimum sentence. In fact, only about 13% of our federal prisoners are serving mandatory minimum sentences and the reason for that is that even though we may charge, the individual may meet the safety valve requirement… or they may be someone who is willing to cooperate with us … that allows us to go back to the court… and explain that this is someone who has provided us with what we call ‘substantial assistance’ which allows the court to reduce the mandatory minimum.”

bling170531What NAAUSA is really saying is that the Sessions Memo once again makes it open season on black defendants. In an amazingly candid admission, Larry Leiser – a current federal prosecutor and NAAUSA president – the president of the group and a current prosecutor, told reporters on a conference call last Thursday that the Sessions Memo will let AUSAs aggressively prosecute drug crimes committed by people “wearing heavy gold and chains and hot cars as a result of their participating in the distribution of these drugs, as opposed to going out and earning an honest living.”

When a reporter braced Leiser, asking whether the remark could be construed as racist, Leiser responded, “It’s intended to be just the reality that unfortunately there are many people in the minority communities that are caught up in this terrible blight of drugs.”

Sessions’ resumption of the “get tough” policies that reigned before the 2014 Holder Memo comes as The Economist again published a withering critique of the American system of incarceration. The magazine reported that Barack Obama’s reform “caused a modest reduction in the number of federal prisoners (who are about 10% of the total). Donald Trump’s attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, has just torn it up. This month he ordered prosecutors to aim for the harshest punishments the law allows, calling his new crusade against drug dealers ‘moral and just’. It is neither.”

The Economist observes that “a ten-year sentence costs ten times as much as a one-year sentence, but is nowhere near ten times as effective a deterrent. Criminals do not think ten years into the future. If they did, they would take up some other line of work. One study found that each extra year in prison raises the risk of reoffending by six percentage points. Also, because mass incarceration breaks up families and renders many ex-convicts unemployable, it has raised the American poverty rate by an estimated 20%.”

pros170531Unfortunately, the problem – whether under Obama or Trump or any of their predecessors – is simply this: DOJ is run by prosecutors. “Despite an obvious conflict of interest,” former AUSA and law professor Mark Osler writes, “the Department of Justice evaluates clemency petitions, runs federal prisons, decides what forensic evidence to introduce in federal cases, and advises the president on criminal justice reform. And make no mistake — prosecutors dominate the agency, with the 93 United States Attorneys playing the leading role in setting policies across a range of issues and career prosecutors running most of the divisions.”

A building full of prosecutors, Osler argues, will instinctively push back against criminal justice reforms, regardless of whether a president is hostile to reform or is as progressive as was Obama. Osler notes that while “it seemed President Obama was sincerely committed to reforming federal criminal law, his results were disappointing. And though some of this failure can be blamed on a recalcitrant Congress, that excuse only goes so far. A close examination of Obama’s record shows that many of the administration’s reforms were subverted by the DOJ, not Congress.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the position of NAAUSA, whose members are current criminal division line AUSAs. “We at the federal level don’t prosecute ‘low-level drug offenders’,” Wasserman declared, but rather only people in the trafficking business.

In other words, Reason’s Jacob Sullum notes, “you can’t be a low-level drug offender if you participate in distribution. Hence the phrase ‘low-level drug dealer’ is, according to Wasserman, oxymoronic.”

unicornbunny170531NAAUSA’s position on the issue is sophomoric, yet unsurprising from a prosecutorial mindset. There is no distinction between someone who becomes addicted to opioids because of an injury, supplying his or her habit by selling extra pills, and the leader of a gang selling heroin on the streets of an inner city and protecting its business with guns and violence. If you sell, you’re a trafficker, and all traffickers are high-level and violent. As Sullum argues, “it is possible to draw distinctions among people convicted of trafficking, based not only on the amount of drugs involved but also on the role the offender played. A courier or street dealer might participate in an operation that handles a large quantity of drugs, but he is still on a low level compared to the people running the operation.”

While NAAUSA denies that any federal drug offenders are “low-level” or “non-violent,” at the same time it argues the law “already provides ample avenues for sparing the truly deserving from long terms in prison.” The avenue is principally sentence reductions for defendants who provide “substantial assistance” to the authorities or who qualify for the statutory “safety valve” (which lets qualifying nonviolent, low-level drug offenders avoid mandatory minimum sentences) It must be hard for NAAUSA to posit such a claim while at the same time denying that such things as “low-level” or “non-violent” drug trafficking defendants exist.

Breitbart.com, Federal Prosecutors Hit Back at Media Criticism of Sessions Sentencing Memo (May 29, 2017)

The Daily Caller, Federal Prosecutor Says DOJ’s New Focus On Drug Crimes Will Target People Wearing ‘Heavy Gold And Chains’ (May 25, 2017)

Economist, America’s prisons are failing. Here’s how to make them work (May 27, 2017)

Mark Osler, The Problem with the Justice Department, The Marshall Project, (May 31, 2017)

Jacob Sullum, Federal Prosecutors Say They Never See Low-Level Drug Offenders, Reason.com (May 30, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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