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Report on America as a Prison Nation, More Criticism of War on Drugs

Human Rights Watch has a new report, A Nation Behind Bars, with facts on the current state of our prison nation and recommendations to reduce our over-reliance on incarceration.

Some facts:[More...]

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Why Innocent People Plead Guilty

U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, who was both a federal prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer before becoming a federal judge, recently gave a talk at the University of Southern California law school on why innocent people plead guilty.

“We have hundreds, or thousands, or even tens of thousands of innocent people who are in prison, right now, for crimes they never committed because they were coerced into pleading guilty. There’s got to be a way to limit this.”

In a nutshell, the reasons many innocent people plead guilty are too much prosecutorial power (in charging decisions and plea agreements) and mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

“People accused of crimes are often offered five years by prosecutors or face 20 to 30 years if they go to trial. … The prosecutor has the information, he has all the chips … and the defense lawyer has very, very little to work with. So it’s a system of prosecutor power and prosecutor discretion. I saw it in real life [as a criminal defense attorney], and I also know it in my work as a judge today.”

The solutions, according to Judge Rakoff: Reduce prosecutorial discretion and eliminate mandatory minimums. I couldn't agree more.

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DOJ Announces Broadened Clemency Criteria for Drug Offenders

On Monday, the Justice Department announced it would soon be implementing new and broader criteria for drug offenders seeking clemency.

Today, the Justice Department announced the new criteria. It is a welcome sea change:

The Justice Department is encouraging nonviolent federal inmates who have behaved in prison, have no significant criminal history and have already served more than 10 years behind bars to apply for clemency, officials announced Wednesday.

The new criteria:

  • They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
  • They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;
  • They have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
  • They do not have a significant criminal history;
  • They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  • They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

Thank you Obama Administration. This is what change looks like. [More...]

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President of Colombia: War on Drugs a Failure

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says the War on Drugs has failed and we need a new approach to drug trafficking.

In an interview on Monday with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Santos noted a softening of hard-line antidrug policies both in the U.S. and in Latin America. He said the world had to develop more "realistic and pragmatic" ways to fight drug trafficking.

"How do I explain to a peasant in Colombia that I have to put him in prison for growing marijuana when in Colorado or in Washington state, it's legal to buy the same marijuana?" he said. "The world needs a more effective, fresher, more creative focus to win this war, because until now we haven't won, and the cost has been enormous."


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House Hearing on Cartels and Extraditing El Chapo

The House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on "Taking Down the Cartels" this week. Predictably, several committee members called for the quick extradition of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

There were four witnesses at the hearing: James Dinkins, a director of Homeland Security Investigations for ICE; John Feeley, a deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Dept; Alan Bersin, an assistant secretary of international affairs and diplomatic officer at Homeland Security; and Christopher Wilson, from the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

I just read the transcript of the hearing (available on Lexis.com). A Republican from Georgia named Paul Broun really stood out -- and not in a positive way -- repeatedly referring to El Chapo as "an animal." Here are some of his remarks:[More...]

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DOJ Endorses Guideline Reduction in Federal Drug Cases

Attorney General Eric Holder testified today at a hearing of the U.S. Sentencing Commission on proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines, one of which is to lower drug sentencing guidelines by two levels. He supports the change. Once approved by the Commission, unless Congress rejects the proposed amendments, it will go into effect Nov. 1. In a press release today, DOJ says:

Until then, the Justice Department will direct prosecutors not to object if defendants in court seek to have the newly proposed guidelines applied to them during sentencing.

There are 216,000 federal inmates. The Bureau of Prisons says it is housing 173,661 of them. Of the 158,000, 98,554 are serving time for drug offenses. (The next biggest category is immigration offenders -- 20,862 inmates.)

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Feds Issue Banking Regs for Marijuana Businesses

FinCEN (the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network) and Department of Justice today issued new guidelines and a memo for banks doing business with marijuana businesses. The FINCEN press release is here.

The guidance provides that financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses in a manner consistent with their obligations to know their customers and to report possible criminal activity.


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Since the sad death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is still prominent in the news, bringing with it the predictable wave of hysteria over heroin use and clamors for more restrictions on pain pills, I will use the opportunity to point out the futility of using our criminal laws as a response to heroin addiction, and the origins of heroin. [More..]

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U.S. Sentencing Commission Proposes Drug Guideline Reductions

Via Sentencing Law and Policy, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has issued this press release calling for comments about a suggested two level reduction in offense level for all drug offenses under the federal sentencing guidelines. The proposed reduction would amount to about 11 months per sentence but would not (and could not) affect mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

The Commission says the amendment would reduce the number of inmates in the federal system: [More...]

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New York To Allow Limited Medical Marijuana

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will announce this week that he is issuing an executive order which will allow seriously ill patients to receive medical marijuana from hospitals.

The policy is intended for patients with serious diseases like cancer and glaucoma.

In light of how far the rest of the country has come, this seems like very small potatoes. But at least it's a step in the right direction.

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DOJ to Spend $544k to Increase Presence on Linked-In

The Department of Justice signed a contract December 24 to pay $544,000 for an "enhanced profile" and increase its branding on the social networking site "Linked In." The recipient of the contract is Carahsoft Technology Corporation, and you can view the contract details here.

Here is DOJ's justification for avoiding the open-bidding process and what it gets for its money. Among the benefits: Full access to every Linked-In profile.

DOJ will be using Linked In to recruit new prosecutors.

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Bill Bratton to Serve Again as NY Police Commissioner

New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio announced that William Bratton will again serve as police commissioner.

He replaces Raymond Kelly, who served since 2002.

Good move by de Blasio. Bill is a strong believer in constitutional rights. I attended his swearing-in ceremony in Los Angeles in 2002 -- here's my report.

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War on Drugs: Cheaper and Purer Than Ever

As many have been saying for years, the Global war on drugs has been an epic failure:

The International Centre for Science in Drug Policy said its report suggested the war on drugs had failed. The report, published in the British Medical Journal Open, looked at data from seven international government-funded drug surveillance systems.

More here and here.

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OIG Report: DOJ Overstates Terrorism Convictions

The Office of Inspector General has issued a new report on DOJ's reporting of prosecutions and convictions, including terrorism cases. The report is a follow-up to a 2007 and 2012 report which found DOJ inflated its terror case statistics. The new report finds DOJ continues to misreport its record in terrorism cases. The OIG attributes the mistakes to shoddy record-keeping.

“These inaccuracies are important in part because DOJ management and Congress need accurate terrorism-related statistics to make informed operational and budgetary decisions,” [I.G. Director Michael] Horowitz said in a statement accompanying the audit’s release.

The full report is here. [More..]

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DOJ to Defer Challenge to New State Marijuana Laws

The Department of Justice has officially spoken about state marijuana laws. It has advised the Governors of Colorado and Washington that provided it enacts robust regulations that do not not interfere with 8 DOJ priorities, it will "defer its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time."

AG Eric Holder has issued a memorandum to federal prosecutors (available here) on the new policy and the 8 priorities in enforcing federal marijuana laws.

The key point: The major sea change is not with respect to possession for personal use, which the feds don't normally charge anyway, but in its willingness to allow some private production and distribution of marijuana. [More...]

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