Sentencing Commission Considering Prison Alternatives for Drug Offenders

Welcome news today in the Washington Post: The U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering alternatives to prison for non-violent, low level drug offenders as well as for some supervised release (parole) violators.

The commission's consideration of alternatives to incarceration reflects its determination to persuade Congress to ease federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that contributed to explosive growth in the prison population. The laws were enacted in the mid-1980s, principally to address a crime epidemic related to crack cocaine. But in recent years, federal judges, public defenders and probation officials have argued that mandatory sentences imprison first-time offenders unnecessarily and disproportionately affect minorities.

Drug courts and adult developmental programs for parolees have worked in the state system. They are far more cost effective than prison: [More...]

"We are leading the world in incarcerating adults, and that's something Americans need to understand," said Beryl Howell, one of six members of the commission, which drafts federal sentencing guidelines and advises the House and Senate on prison policy. "People should be aware that every tough-on-crime act comes with a price. The average cost [of incarceration] across the country is $24,000 a year per inmate. . . . It's going up far faster than state budgets can keep up."

If the Sentencing Commission adopts changes, they will be submitted to Congress by May 1, 2009. Congress would have until November 1, 2009 to reject them, otherwise they become law.

As to how drug courts work:

At sentencing, a judge gives a nonviolent offender the option of going to prison or committing to a rigorous treatment program, where he or she submits to frequent tests and supervision. The aim is to reduce the 67 percent recidivism rate of addicted offenders.

If the Sentencing Commission adopts these new policies for federal cases, relief will trickle down to the states:

The government has established a discretionary grant program, operated by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is distributing $13 million to drug court programs this year.

"Drug courts are the most successful strategy in terms of reducing crime, but they're tremendously underutilized," Huddleston said. "I think a Sentencing Commission recommendation to U.S. courts would create momentum. It'll wake up state legislatures. It's a conversation that should have been had years ago."

It's about time we became smart, rather than just tough, on crime.

.... a study this year by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States revealed that more than one in 100 American adults are in jail or prison. That study was followed by a Bureau of Justice Statistics report in June that showed that a record 7.2 million people are under supervision in the criminal justice system. The cost, about $45 billion a year, has forced states such as California to export inmates to private prisons as far away as Tennessee.

Who we elect in November could make a difference. The Justice Department will weigh in and if it opposes the changes, will try to convince members of Congress to reject the changes. Right now,

... the Justice Department is open to discussing options that might reduce prison overcrowding and costs, and is waiting to see what the commission recommends, Sedgwick said. "We're not necessarily going to oppose it out of hand, but we say be real careful, we recommend more study," he said.

This is something that Sen. Barack Obama has advocated in the past. Even Joe Biden would support it (He was the sponsor of the Second Chance Act, signed into law by Bush in April, 2008.) Which means an Obama-appointed Attorney General likely will support it. Here's Obama at the Howard University Convocation in September, 2007:

Obama: I think it's time we also took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first-time, non-violent drug users for decades. Someone once said that "...long minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease." That someone was George W. Bush - six years ago. I don't say this very often, but I agree with the President. The difference is, he hasn't done anything about it. When I'm President, I will. We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent offenders. And we will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior. So let's reform this system. Let's do what's smart. Let's do what's just.

John McCain? He wants to ratchet up the war on drugs. He pays some lip service to alternative sentences but is so bad on the drug war in general, he's not trustworthy on this issue, particularly given his voting record during the past 20 plus years and his recent statements. Here's a recent speech he gave to Sheriff's outlining his tough on crime record.

As for his characterization of how alternative sentences are working in Arizona, it's just not true.

. In Arizona Prison Crisis: A Call for Smart on Crime Solutions (PDF), a report prepared in 2004 for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, authors Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis point out that Arizona has the highest incarceration rate in the western U.S. and the ninth highest rate in the country.

"Arizona’s high incarceration rate is driven by a rigid mandatory sentencing system that severely restricts judges’ discretion in imposing sentences and crowds prisons with non-violent substance abusers." A majority of Arizona's prisoners, they write, are non-violent offenders, with one-in-five behind bars for drug offenses.

In fact, say Greene and Pranis, in Arizona "[s]entences were longer for drug sales than for many violent crimes. The average sentence imposed for drug sales (4.3 years, including marijuana sales), was longer than the average sentence imposed for assault (four years) or weapons charges (3.8 years) and the same as the average sentence for arson."

More from Obama, in answering a questionnaire from the AFGE , an organization of federal employees including 15,000 prison guards, who subsequently endorsed Obama for President.:

Moreover, we should also take steps to address the dramatic rise in incarceration that has occurred over the last two decades. It’s time for us to re-examine the wisdom of locking up some first-time, non-violent drug users for decades. These policies are a significant source of the overcrowding of our prison. As president, I will work to reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent
offenders – individuals who often have mental health and substance abuse problems.

I will give first-time, non-violent offenders the opportunity to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior. And I will support Department of Justice programs that provide grants to state drug courts that supervise treatment programs, and will replicate those drug courts on the federal level.

Bob Barr, whom I also don't trust on the issue due to his past voting record, now says:

I also would review my presidential pardon and commutation powers as a possible means to reduce the number of people in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses. We can no longer afford the human and economic costs of imprisoning so many thousands of people for drug possession. This is the most destructive impact of drug prohibition.

Here's how he voted while in Congress:

  • Voted NO on funding for alternative sentencing instead of more prisons. (Jun 2000)
  • Voted YES on more prosecution and sentencing for juvenile crime. (Jun 1999)
  • Voted NO on maintaining right of habeas corpus in Death Penalty Appeals. (Mar 1996)
  • Voted YES on making federal death penalty appeals harder. (Feb 1995)
  • More prisons, more enforcement, effective death penalty. (Sep 1994)
  • Prevent luxurious conditions in prisons. (Jan 1995)

The Sentencing Commission's announcement of its intent to consider alternative sentences for the May 1, 2009 cycle is here (pdf).

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  • Display: Sort:
    Tough on Criminal (none / 0) (#1)
    by koshembos on Sun Oct 12, 2008 at 04:14:45 PM EST
    It's funny that tough on crime was translated without any hestitationinto tough on the criminals. Why? Is it one and the same? No it isn't. Alternative punishment are as tough on crime as the standard put them in jail and through away the keys.

    American has to understand that the deterioration of our society didn't start in Iraq or Reagan. It started way earlier when we enacted policies that sought to exclude people from society whether on the basis of: economic, legal, ethnic, etc.

    We have a Drug/MH Court in our county (none / 0) (#2)
    by JSN on Sun Oct 12, 2008 at 05:10:21 PM EST
    that started in March. I have observed the court twice because I was one of the people that kept after our legislators to provide the funds to make it possible. The first time I observed the court there they were just feeling their way and the when I observed the court last week except for the newest members the clients were relaxed and confident. Most of the clients will successfully complete the program a few are in jail so there s some doubt about them and one was revoked to prison. The goal of reducing recidivism will be achieved but there will be a few failures as well.

    In order to have a MH as well as drug court you need extra staff but in my opinion they are worth the extra cost because frequently there are both permanent and temporary MH issues associated with drug abuse and it is common for mentally ill person to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. A side benefit is having a MH provider in the courthouse on a regular basis provides the other judges as well as attorneys and court staff with a valuable source of information.

    For the past two years the annual training taken by all law enforcement officers and jail deputies has included a unit on MH issues and we have already seen some benefits from that. I doubt that any of this would have happened if there were not strong support for such programs in the community.

    ok, this part should be (none / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Mon Oct 13, 2008 at 12:34:46 AM EST
    dropped in the trash bin, never to surface again in intelligent conversation:

    .........and disproportionately affect minorities.

    why, you ask? good question. so what if it does? is it written somewhere that crimes are committed on a pro rata basis? if so, i've never seen any empirical evidence to support such a ridiculous assertion. show me the proof!

    if you're claiming that this disporportionality is due to some other factor, than the actual commission of crime (such as intentional discrimination in sentencing), again, show me proof.

    absent that proof, drop it, it's a loser for gaining support amongst the masses for needed change.

    aside from that, i would also recommend dropping pot possession/use as any kind of criminal offense. legalize it, tax it, be done with it. poof! there goes probably 50% of your non-violent offenders.

    barr is still a nutcase: you can change your stripes, your basic nature doesn't.

    One example that comes to mind is Cindy McCain (none / 0) (#4)
    by robsheely on Mon Oct 13, 2008 at 01:13:54 AM EST
    if you're claiming that this disporportionality is due to some other factor, than the actual commission of crime (such as intentional discrimination in sentencing), again, show me proof.

    One example that comes to mind is Cindy McCain who, in addition to being a first-time nonviolent offender, was also guilty of stealing drugs from her charity. She never served day one in prison.

    I don't begrudge her this. Addiction is a sickness that can strike anyone, even rich white people. And addicts commit crimes to keep the drugs flowing. That's the nature of the disease.

    What I find so deplorable is that neither she nor her husband have stood up for others who have become addicts just like her. In the world of Republican morality, it seems all too often, compassion is reserved for one's self.


    The probability of incarceration depends on (none / 0) (#5)
    by JSN on Mon Oct 13, 2008 at 07:15:35 AM EST
    1. Behavior
    2. Criminal history
    3. A large number of social-economic factors
    4. Age
    5. Gender
    6. Race/Ethnicity

    I don't agree with those that say that a racist criminal justice system is the only important factor nor do I agree with those that say that the criminal  justice system is free of racial bias.

    If you look at crime profiles of incarcerated persons by age, gender and race/ethnicity it turns out that age is the dominant  factor. The probability that a males older than 65 and females older than 45 will be admitted to prison is very small. This result is independent of race/ethnicity.

    For young offenders there is a large dependence on race/ethnicity primarily because of differences in crime profiles.


    Re-inventing the wheel again? (none / 0) (#6)
    by SeeEmDee on Mon Oct 13, 2008 at 08:52:28 AM EST
    Look, prior to 1914, what you put in your body was your own damn business. As Mark Twain put it: "Now what I contend is that my body is my own, at least, I have always so regarded it. If I do it harm through my experimenting it is I who suffer, not the state." (Full context available here.)

    "Drug courts" are just a symptom of the machinery of failed drug prohibition desperately hanging onto the power it has accumulated over the years. Mandating cannabis users to 'treatment is a perfect example of this in action.

    Drug prohibition has always been a 'rich man's hobby', a national pass-time that requires enormous amounts of 'expendable income' to maintain, as it produces nothing but prisons and salaries for those engaged in prosecuting that prohibition.

    It certainly is not in the same league as national defense, no matter what pathetic attempts supporters of drug prohibition make in trying to to spot-weld their pet neurosis onto that national defense. Which, by the way, was funded by all those Chinese and Japanese loans...which have now come due.

    Look around you. Look at the behavior of the market, and the Federal Reserve Board in inflating the money supply. The truth is, Uncle Sam is dead flat broke. We can't afford anything that doesn't contribute materially to that aforementioned national defense and to the public commonweal...and drug prohibition certainly cannot pass the muster.

    We. Just. Can't. Afford. It. Anymore.

    Always good to hear.... (none / 0) (#7)
    by kdog on Mon Oct 13, 2008 at 09:27:03 AM EST
    that less free people will be tyrannized in a 5' X 8', but still longing for the day when "drug offender" is no longer part of our collective vocabulary.

    As SeeEmDee was kind enough to point out, 100 years ago you could drink, smoke, sniff, or shoot whatever you damn well pleased.  We had it right the first time, before the forebearers of today's nany state liberals and morality police conservatives screwed the liberty pooch.

    of course, (none / 0) (#8)
    by cpinva on Mon Oct 13, 2008 at 04:21:56 PM EST
    a 100 years ago, you stood a pretty good chance of dying, as the result of taking some otc medication, that contained mercury or arsenic as its primary active ingredient.

    you stood a real good chance of being run over by a train or car, because there were no safety requirements for either.

    if you worked in a factory or mine, your life expectancy was materially decreased, because you would probably get maimed or killed, due to the lack of any mandated safety features.

    a 100 years ago, drs. were only really just starting to buy into the whole "wash your hands, before treating the next patient" thing. so, if you actually made it to a hospital, the odds were really, really good that you'd die there, from some lovely infection you got from your dr.

    people who talk about "the good old days" tend to have no clue what those days were actually like, for the average person.


    The old safety vs. liberty debate.... (none / 0) (#9)
    by kdog on Tue Oct 14, 2008 at 10:10:29 AM EST
    everybody leans a different way, I'm tipping the scales for liberty.