Sentencing guidelines

  • September 26, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Director, Center for Law & Social Justice, Co-Director, Criminal Law Fellowship Program, Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Kreit is also author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    When Gil Kerlikowske took office as drug czar four years ago, he said he was going to retire the concept of the war on drugs. During Obama’s first term, however, his policies did not live up to the bold rhetoric.  There were a handful of reforms -- perhaps most notably, a reduction (though not elimination) of the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. But at its core, federal drug policy remained almost entirely unchanged between 2009 and 2012.

    In recent weeks, the Obama administration has turned its words into action by tackling one of the most significant and criticized features of the drug war: mandatory minimum sentencing.

    Enacted in the 1980s, the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws were the embodiment of the “war on drugs” mentality.  Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another federal law or policy as closely linked to the drug war. 

    Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy, instructing federal prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases that met certain criteria.  With some of the criteria left open to interpretation, I wrote last month that only time would tell the policy’s true impact. Will the Department of Justice closely monitor local prosecutors to ensure compliance and consistent interpretation of the policy?  Or, will federal prosecutors be given the leeway to circumvent or narrowly apply the new policy?

    While it will take at least a few more months to know the answers to these questions, last week Attorney General Holder issued a second memo that provides reason for optimism. Holder’s most recent memo expands the new policy by applying it to defendants who have already been charged and encouraging prosecutors to follow the guidance even in cases where the defendant has already pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, where it is “legally and practically feasible.”

    This development is a hopeful sign that the Department of Justice is serious about its new policy. 

  • September 24, 2013

    by Nicandro Iannacci

    As the adage goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which convened a hearing last week to consider mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The meeting came on the heels of recent announcements from Attorney General Eric Holder that signaled change in the executive enforcement of sentencing laws. The reigning congressional climate of polarization, clouded in recent weeks by impending fiscal fights, made all the more compelling the general agreement across ideological divides that change is needed, now.

    Competing legislation introduced this year is evidence of that consensus, even if the parties involved don’t totally agree on specifics. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was introduced in March; the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was announced just last month. The bills have much in common, though the Leahy-Paul proposal goes further than its counterpart by eliminating entirely mandatory sentences for selected non-drug crimes.

    Nevertheless, the sponsors of both bills were short on comparison and long on unison as they addressed the issue before a packed hearing room featuring numerous family members of loved ones serving mandatory sentences. Sen. Leahy, chairman of the committee, called the current system “unsustainable,” noting that the U.S. prison population has risen 700 percent since 1970, paralleling a rise in cost to $6.4 billion per year. “Fiscal responsibility demands it,” he said of reform. “Justice demands it.” Sen. Durbin asked a simple question of the sentencing laws: “Is America safer?” Answering in the negative, he said Congress is “doing everything we can to sensibly reduce the level of incarceration in this country.”

    From across the aisle, Sen. Paul kicked off the agenda with a scathing condemnation of the impact sentencing laws have on minority groups. “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. “One out of three African-American males are forbidden from voting because of the War on Drugs.” (His comments echoed the work of OSU Prof. Michelle Alexander in her important book, The New Jim Crow, featured on ACS BookTalk.)

  • August 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for civil and justice reform at the Open Society Foundations and convener of the Washington-based Justice Roundtable

    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced significant steps today at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco to correct the deepest, costliest and worst aspects in our criminal justice system. The reforms he outlined in remarks entitled, Smart on Crime, were a long time coming for the criminal justice advocacy community.

    Although Congress recently approved legislation to help prisoners re-enter society and to reduce the infamous disparity between crack and powder cocaine, previous Presidents and Congress have never addressed the root causes of mass incarceration. These unjust laws and policies that drive up the U.S. prison population include inflexible front-end decisions that define who goes to prison and for how long, as well as stubborn back-end choices that impede early release.

    Today, in the fifth decade of both the March on Washington and the War on Drugs, the Attorney General has ushered in a revolutionary moment by advancing the policy discussion around widespread incarceration that has cost billions of dollars without making society any safer, and reducing flaws of a system that sends too many people of color to prison.

    The policies outlined in Holder’s speech will recalibrate the federal criminal justice system by correcting obstacles, inefficiencies and inequities and transforming law enforcement strategies so they alleviate, rather than exacerbate, harsh punishment.

  • August 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Stephen Wermiel, Professor of Practice, American University Washington College of Law

    Attorney General Eric Holder touched off a new chapter in his Justice Department tenure yesterday by unveiling a set of far-reaching and important criminal justice reforms that supporters of the Obama administration have long awaited. Holder’s speech captured the attention and fired up the spirit of an otherwise somewhat lethargic American Bar Association annual meeting in San Francisco. Holder expressed what is likely the strongest, clearest vision yet from the Obama administration and one that his admirers have hoped would be part of his legacy: “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”

    Of important note is that a number of the things Holder discussed can and apparently will be done within the Executive Branch and do not require consideration or approval by a Congress incapacitated by partisan gridlock. Specifically, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to change the way they bring drug charges against individuals who commit low-level offenses and who have no ties to gangs, drug cartels or organized crime. Federal law mandates the use of mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug crimes, and changing the law would require Congress to act. Holder noted that there is bipartisan support in the Senate to reform mandatory minimums for drug offenses. But Holder can act on his own and now has done so to urge federal prosecutors to exercise discretion by charging different crimes that do not trigger mandatory minimums and that, as Holder said, will better reflect the severity of the misconduct without draconian excessive criminal sentences.  This is an important recognition of the major shortcomings of the decades-old war on drugs that has consumed billions of dollars in law enforcement budgets and tens of thousands of lives ruined by prison terms that were out of proportion to the crime or the nature of the individual. Holder also said U.S. attorneys will be urged to make greater use of drug diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration.

    Another very important recognition by Holder followed on the heels of President Obama’s remarks on the Trayvon Martin case last month. Holder told the ABA “that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system – as victims as well as perpetrators.” He added, “We also must confront the reality that – once they’re in that system – people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers.”  The racial injustice of the criminal justice system is a subject that needs urgent attention from Holder and other leaders.

  • August 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego. Kreit is author of the casebook, Controlled Substances: Crime, Regulation, and Policy and the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy that has the potential to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in many drug cases. Holder’s Aug. 12 announcement marks the most significant policy change in what has been, until now, a largely rhetorical shift away from the failed war on drugs

    The new prosecutorial guidelines are aimed at one of the most disgraceful and frequently criticized features of drug war-era mandatory minimum sentencing: tying punishments to drug type and quantity in low-level cases.  The practice began with a hastily drafted law passed by Congress in 1984, at the height of drug war fervor.  The measure sought to increase and standardize punishments in federal drug cases through mandatory minimum penalties.  Legislators claimed that the law would create a two-tiered penalty structure, subjecting so-called “serious” drug traffickers to five-year minimum sentences and “major” traffickers to ten-year prison terms.  (These mandatory penalties can increase to 20-years or even life for defendants with prior felony drug convictions.)

    The problem is that while Congress referred to “serious” and “major” traffickers in debating the mandatory minimum provisions, the five- and ten-year penalties are “triggered not by role but by drug type and quantity instead.”   And, it turns out; drug type and quantity are a poor measure of a drug offender’s culpability. 

    Take drug couriers for example.  Drug couriers are considered expendable by drug organizations.  Most are addicts or otherwise down-on-their luck.  In San Diego, where I live, drug organization recruiters seek out homeless people for this job just a few blocks from the heart of downtown.  They might be paid $1,500 to transport hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs across the border.