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Tag: Sentencing reform

Feds Approve $54 Million for New High Security Prison

The Bureau of Prisons has announced renovations will commence on the Thomson maximum security prison in Illinois. The funding was approved in January in the Omnibus Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2014.

The "state of the art" unoccupied state prison was built in 2001 and purchased by the U.S. from Illinois as a possible place to house Guantanamo inmates when Gitmo closed. Then Congress killed the transfer of Guantanamo inmates to the U.S.

Check out the gleeful response of Illinois senator Richard Durbin:

This is the news we’ve been waiting for. The funding that the Bureau of Prisons reported to Congress today is a significant investment in the economic future of Northern Illinois,” said Durbin.

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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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AG Holder Asks For Cocaine Sentencing Reform

Via Sentencing Lsw and Policy, Attorney General Eric Holder today spoke at the event "“Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy: 25th Anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act." His remarks are here.

The AP reports he is soliciting cocaine sentencing reform.

"This administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powdered cocaine sentences is unwarranted," Holder said. "It must be eliminated."

As I noted a few days ago, Holder spoke to judges about sentencing last week at the D.C. Judicial Conference. I opined he was trying, but needed to try harder to light a fire under Congress to revise both cocaine penalties and mandatory minimums. Today he clearly called for a 1:1 sentencing ratio for crack and powder, instead of saying "if" a 1:1 ratio "is our goal." I'm glad to see him stepping up the pressure. [More...]

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Congressional Black Caucus and Harvard to Hold Mandatory Minimum Program

The Congressional Black Caucus is teaming with Harvard Law School to put on this program in Washington next week. The speakers are terrific.

The Congressional Black Caucus Community Re-Investment Taskforce and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School invite you to attend "Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy" 25th Anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 4:00 p.m. U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means
1100 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C.

Agenda and speakers below:

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Colorado Considers Sweeping Sentencing Reform

A bill that would overhaul Colorado's sentencing laws to reduce or eliminate prison terms for non-violent offenders was introduced yesterday by State Senators Morgan Carroll and John Morse. The full text of the bill is here (pdf.)

A bill introduced yesterday by Sens. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, takes a sweeping approach to sentencing reform by aiming to lower the degree and penalty of most non-violent crimes.

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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...]

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Judge Weinstein: Juries Should Know If Mandatory Minimum Applies

U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein ruled this week that juries should be told before they deliberate if a defendant is facing a mandatory minimum sentence. The 236 page opinion is available here (pdf). [Hat tip to Sentencing Law and Policy].

As a result of his ruling, a child p*rn defendant caught a break. That alone has been enough to make the media take notice. But defense lawyers face this every day with drug defendants. [More...]

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Hillary Again States Opposition to Mandatory Minimums

Via Sentencing Law and Policy, Hillary was interviewed by Vibe Magazine last weekend.

VIBE: In your speech, you talked about having first, second, and third chances for children. In the last ten years the rate of incarceration of women has increased exponentially. I don’t think the average person realizes that it’s not 50% or 100%, it’s like 750% in the last thirty years. There are a disproportionate number of African-American men and women who are going to be released from prison with felony convictions. What do we do about that group of people who are effectively disenfranchised when they come out?

CLINTON: Number one, we need to divert more people from the prison system. We have too many people in prison for non-violent drug offenses, which disproportionately impacts on the African-American community. That’s why I’ve been a strong advocate of eliminating the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine [sentencing].

There may have been a reason for it 25 years ago but there isn’t any justification for it now. But it also means that in the prisons themselves, we’ve got to get back to the services that used to be there.

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The Sentencing of Sergeant Patrick Lett

Update: Here's the cert petition (pdf) filed today, which Prof. Berman quotes from here. They'd also welcome amicus briefs.

A must-read article in the New York Times today about Sgt. Patrick Lett and his cocaine sentencing in Alabama. Law Prof Doug Berman of Sentencing Law and Policy, who is now representing Sgt. Lett pro bono, has lots more.

First, about Sgt. Lett:

Sgt. Patrick Lett, had served 17 years in the Army, including two tours in Iraq, and he had pleaded guilty in federal court to selling cocaine. It was up to Judge William H. Steele, a former marine, to decide how to punish him. “I don’t normally see people standing before me in uniform,” Judge Steele said.

Sergeant Lett’s commanding officer, Capt. Michael Iannuccilli, testified that the man he knew was “a patriot, father and a good man.” “I would gladly deploy to Iraq with him and entrust my life to him,” Captain Iannuccilli said. “I’d trust my soldiers’ lives to him. He’s been nothing but an exemplary soldier.”...

The judge's hands were tied by the mandatory minimum 5 year penalty. He wanted to give Lett as short a sentence as possible. Read below what happened:

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Idaho Considers Bill to Lessen Mandatory Minimums

A bill introduced in Idaho to allow judges to depart below state mandatory minimum sentencing laws for defendants marginally involved in drug dealing will get a full hearing before the state's House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee.

The bill is co-sponsored by three Republicans and one Democrat.

Idaho now has 7,400 people behind bars. More than half of them are there due to drug-related offenses. The state has shipped about 500 people to other states because there's no more room in prisons in Idaho.

Under the bill, judges could opt for shorter, treatment-focused sentences for addicts convicted of drug-dealing crimes, on the presumption that if they get clean they're less likely to re-offend.

One Republican legislator says of the bill,

"Our prisons are pumped full. It would be nice to give judges discretion about whether to send somebody to prison or to some other treatment program. In reality, they're the ones that are sitting on the front lines, not the legislators who are making the laws."

Another bill pending in the state would expand drug courts. Hopefully we'll see other states -- and ultimately the feds -- follow suit.

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Sentencing Guideline Changes Coming for Terminally Ill and Others

Good news in the federal sentencing department. Guideline changes set to take effect November 1 unless Congress acts to ban them include a provision giving judges greater discretion in granting compassionate release for dying prisoners.

A safety-valve provision for compassionate release for the dying is in the original sentencing law but it hasn't been effective.

But advocates for inmates say the way the statute is actually carried out is anything but compassionate. Few terminally ill inmates are approved for release, and the bureaucracy is such that even when people are approved, they often die before they get out. The advocates also contend that prison officials have misconstrued the original intent of Congress and interpreted the grounds for release much too narrowly.

Now, in a departure from the tough sentencing policies that it has legislated for more than two decades, Congress is poised to allow guidelines to go into effect starting Nov. 1 that would give federal judges much greater power to release federal inmates.

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Calif. Vet Looking at Big Mandatory Minimum Sentence

Meet Sargent Binkley, an army vet currently facing twenty-plus years in Santa Clara, CA. His high school buddies are trying to publicize his plight and have set up a website. Here's his sad story.

Sargent Binkley is a high school classmate of ours and West Point graduate who is currently facing twenty-odd years in prison for robbing a Walgreens under California's minimum sentencing laws. He used a gun (unloaded) and robbed the drugstores of only Percocet - no money, harming nobody.

Here's the kicker -- he was addicted to the opiates after smashing his hip while serving abroad in the Army -- the military medical system
kept misdiagnosing him, and feeding him more of the painkillers. Add in some serious PTSD (he guarded mass graves in Bosnia from
desecration at one point) and he spiraled down.

Sargent turned himself in, has been in a rehab program in county jail for over a year and a half while he awaits sentencing, and by all accounts is
doing well. The Santa Clara DA wants to chuck the book at him, and he'll be gone.

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Dems Debate Sentencing Reform and Mandatory Minimums

Via Sentencing Law and Policy, I see that at the Democratic debate on Saturday night at Howard University, the candidates spent six minutes on sentencing reform and mandatory minimum sentences.

The Sentencing Project reports:

Democratic Forum, the first of the All-American Presidential Forums broadcast on PBS and hosted by Tavis Smiley, addressed the issues of mandatory minimum sentencing and racial disparity in the nation's criminal justice system Thursday. Hosted at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the forum focused on crime and punishment as one of eight topics presented to the Democratic candidates.

Rep. Kucinich first brought up the need to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing when asked about the disparate rate of incarceration, because "We know who's serving those mandatory minimums."

Several candidates addressed the need for reform of federal crack cocaine sentencing laws, including Sen. Joseph Biden, who this week introduced the Drug Sentencing Reform & Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007 which would eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

The entire transcript is here and the sentencing issue portion begins here. You can watch the segment here.

Shorter version: Kucinich has always seen the light. Hillary and Edwards have made major shifts in the right direction, kudos to them. Richardson disappoints and is the only candidate to evade the question.

As to specifics, here's what each of them said.

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