Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I was wrong about the War on Drugs. It is a failure. by Bob Barr

I'll admit it, just five years ago I was "Public Enemy Number 1" in the eyes of the Libertarian Party. In my 2002 congressional race for Georgia's Seventh District, the Libertarian Party ran scathing attack ads against my stand on Medical Marijuana.

Today, I am their presidential nominee and will represent libertarians at the top of the ticket on November 4th.


That's right, Bob Barr, formerly the War on Drugs loving, Wiccan mocking, Clinton impeaching Republican is the presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party.

Now, you may be asking how this happened and my answer is simple: "The libertarians won."

For more than three decades, the Libertarian Party and small "l" libertarians have done their part to prove to America that liberty is the answer to most of the problems that we face today. Over the past several years, I was one of the many people influenced by this small party.

Whether through the free market or by simply allowing families to make their own decisions regarding the education of their children, libertarians have taught us that liberty does truly work.

In stark contrast, when government attempts to solve our societal problems, it tends to create even more of them, often increasing the size and depth of the original problem. A perfect example of this is the federal War on Drugs.

For years, I served as a federal prosecutor and member of the House of Representatives defending the federal pursuit of the drug prohibition.

Today, I can reflect on my efforts and see no progress in stopping the widespread use of drugs. I'll even argue that America's drug problem is larger today than it was when Richard Nixon first coined the phrase, "War on Drugs," in 1972.

America's drug problem is only compounded by the vast amounts of money directed at this ongoing battle. In 2005, more than $12 billion dollars was spent on federal drug enforcement efforts while another $30 billion was spent to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders.

The result of spending all of those taxpayer's dollars? We now have a huge incarceration tab for non-violent drug offenders and, at most, a 30% interception rate of hard drugs. We are also now plagued with the meth labs that are popping up like poisonous mushrooms across the country.

While it is clear the War on Drugs has been a failure, it is not enough to simply acknowledge that reality. We need to look for solutions that deal with the drug problem without costly and intrusive government agencies, and instead allow for private industry and organizations to put forward solutions that address the real problems.

One such solution was presented to me recently by a libertarian friend and supporter, Glenn Jacobs.

Glenn is a very unique guy with a very unique job. To say Glenn is a "big guy" or "intimidating" is an understatement. He gives people nightmares... literally.

Each week Glenn, who stands nearly seven feet tall, walks into a wrestling ring under the stage name "Kane" to beat other large men for sheer entertainment purposes.

Had I not pursued a career in politics -- and were about two feet taller -- I might have chosen a similar career path. Maybe...

In June of 2007, Glenn and many of his friends and co-workers in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) were rocked by the news of the Chris Benoit tragedy that took place in my home state of Georgia.

It was speculated that Chris had murdered his family and committed suicide in a steroid or "roid" rage. While it is unclear how much of a role drugs played in Benoit's actions, and whether mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) may also have been a contributing factor, it was clear the WWE had some serious problems within its organization.

In the wake of the tragedy, the head of the WWE, Vince McMahon, and its other leaders looked internally to recognize these problems and address them. Although in the two years before Benoit's death, dozens of wrestlers had been suspended, gone to rehab, or been dismissed under the WWE's recently adopted "Wellness Program," the WWE strengthened its drug policy further, re-emphasizing that its policy wasn't merely a document, but the internal laws of the company that would be enforced.

Additionally, in response to speculation by brain trauma experts that Benoit may have been suffering from brain damage caused by years of blows to the head, WWE added a MTBI component to its Wellness Program.

McMahon didn't wait for Congress to pass a law or parade his wrestlers in front of congressional committee hearings; he took the lead and assumed responsibility over the health and welfare of the individuals who work for the WWE.

As part of the WWE Wellness Program, wrestlers go through regular drug testing and even cardiovascular testing. The latter identified a previously unknown heart condition for the wrestler "MVP" and he was treated for Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. The government's War on Drugs wouldn't have done that.

Sadly, the long standing War on Drugs also did not save the life of Chris Benoit and his family. The truth is, only Chris could have saved himself through personal responsibility. However, the efforts of Vince McMahon are making progress in preventing other tragedies and harm.

The WWE is taking responsibility for its talent and giving its participants the resources that they need, through rehabilitation, testing and even anonymous help lines, to deal with any possible problems.

While there may be some employees of the organization who may not like random drug tests or being thrown on a treadmill for an EKG, they have the choice of finding a new employer.

That's the beauty of this libertarian solution. It does not take government intervention or our tax dollars. It also does not force anyone to do anything, as it only requires voluntary action and decisions.

While I applaud the WWE for taking on this responsibility with a libertarian solution, don't bother looking for me at an upcoming cage match on Friday Night Smackdown. I don't want to be responsible for hurting any of those little guys.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Fiscal stress causing some states to release inmates early

Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States to Free Inmates Early

By Keith B. Richburg and Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 5, 2008; A01

NEW YORK -- Reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug offenders, many cash-strapped states are embracing a view once dismissed as dangerously naive: It costs far less to let some felons go free than to keep them locked up.

It is a theory that has long been pushed by criminal justice advocates and liberal politicians -- that some felons, particularly those convicted of minor drug offenses, would be better served by treatment, parole or early release for good behavior. But the states' conversion to that view has less to do with a change of heart on crime than with stark fiscal realities. At a time of shrinking resources, prisons are eating up an increasing share of many state budgets.

"It's the fiscal stuff that's driving it," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for more lenient sentencing. "Do you want to build prisons or do you want to build colleges? If you're a governor, it's kind of come to that choice right now."

Mauer and other observers point to a number of recent actions, some from states facing huge budget shortfalls, some not, but still worried about exploding costs.

· To ease the overcrowding and save California about $1.1 billion over two years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has proposed freeing about 22,000 prisoners convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses 20 months earlier than their scheduled release dates. He also wants to place them on unsupervised parole, saving the state the cost of having all parolees assigned to an agent.

· Lawmakers in Providence, R.I., approved an expansion last week of the state's "good time" early-release rules to cover more inmates serving shorter sentences. The new rules, which will put more inmates under post-prison supervision, are expected to save Rhode Island an estimated $8 billion over five years.

· In Kentucky, where 22,000 state inmates are housed in county prisons and private facilities, lawmakers agreed to allow certain nonviolent, nonsexual offenders to serve up to 180 days of their sentences at home, and to make it easier for prisoners to earn credit for good behavior. The move could save the state, which is facing a $900 million deficit over the next two years, as much as $30 million.

· In Mississippi, where the prison population has doubled during the past dozen years to 22,600, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has signed into law two measures that will reduce it: One to let certain nonviolent offenders go free after serving 25 percent of their sentences, and the other to release some terminally ill inmates.

· South Carolina, meanwhile, is looking to abolish parole, in part to slow the growth of its prison population since there would be fewer people returned to prison for parole violations.

Proposals to free prisoners are still met with opposition, particularly from law enforcement officials who fear that a flood of released felons could return to their communities, and from victims groups that worry that justice is being sacrificed for budgetary concerns.

The California plan has drawn criticism from the Legislative Analyst's Office, the state's nonpartisan fiscal adviser, which warned that 63,000 mid-level offenders would "effectively go unpunished, serving little or no prison time" and would not have active supervision.

The proposal also worries local governments and police in California, particularly in Los Angeles County -- home to the nation's largest prison system, which supplies about a third of the state's prison population. "It's kind of like the volcano has erupted," County Sheriff Lee Baca said. "To let out 63,000 prisoners on summary parole -- which means no parole -- is not good policy."

Bob Pack, 52, of Danville, Calif., is particularly disturbed by the prospect of softer punishment forthose convicted of drunken driving. In 2003, Pack's two children -- Troy, 10, and Alana, 7 -- were struck and killed when a drunk driver's car jumped a curb and ran onto a neighborhood sidewalk. The driver had three prior drunken-driving convictions.

Said Pack: "I guarantee you that if this program is fulfilled, somewhere down the road -- it could be three months or a year -- there's going to be a family in court over the death of a loved one, because of someone who got out early."

But for now, state officials are finding themselves under mounting pressure to cut costs and are looking at their rising prison population.

Between 1987 and last year, states increased their higher education spending by 21 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States. During the same period, spending on corrections jumped by 127 percent.

In the Northeastern states, according to the Pew report, prison spending over the past 20 years has risen 61 percent, while higher education spending has declined by 5.5 percent.

California -- which has the country's worst fiscal crisis, with a potential shortfall of $20 billion -- has seen its prison-related spending swell to $10.4 billion for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. About 170,000 inmates are packed into California's 33 prisons, which were designed to hold 100,000. About 15,000 prisoners are being housed in emergency beds, in converted classrooms and gymnasiums.

Rhode Island's prison population peaked and its 4,000-inmate prison capacity was exceeded in recent years, prompting a lawsuit and a court settlement. "The soaring inmate census has created a crisis here," said Ashbel T. Wall, the state's corrections director. "We've been busting the budget continuously. . . . Our prisons have been packed."

New Jersey is one state making changes out of a desire for more efficiency. Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) is proposing legislation to expand drug courts to channel more nonviolent, first-time drug offenders into treatment instead of prisons, and also to expand supervised parole. Another proposal would change the parole policy so parolees were not automatically returned to prison for minor drug offenses, said Lilo Stainton, the governor's spokeswoman.

She said that in New Jersey's case, the changes are not budget-driven. "We think this is a more humane and sensible way to treat people," she said.

Michigan is grappling with a massive prison population, mainly because "truth in sentencing" rules make the state less generous about granting paroles. Michigan's incarceration rate is 47 percent higher than that of the other Great Lakes states, according to experts.

Michigan has become one of the few states that actually spend more on prisons than on higher education -- about $2 billion for prisons, and $1.9 billion in state aid to its 15 public universities and 28 community colleges. "It's insane," said Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending in Lansing. "The governor is always talking about how we need to be high tech. But these days, the best career opportunity is to get a job as a prison guard."

In fact, according to Thomas Clay, a prisons and budget expert with Michigan's nonprofit Citizens Research Council, the state government employed 70,000 people in 1980, including 5,000 working for the prisons system. Today, the number of state workers has dropped to 54,000, but 17,000 work for the prisons.

"You've got two decades of failed policies," said Laura Sager a consultant in Michigan for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said mandatory sentencing laws and tough penalties for drug offenses in the 1980s "bloated prisons and prison populations, and the taxpayer is paying a very high price."

Now with states struggling with budget deficits, she said, "you have pressures that make it palatable to take a second look."

Surdin reported from Los Angeles.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Why Prison Population Keeps Growing

America Behind Bars: Why Attempts at Prison Reform Keep Failing

By Liliana Segura, AlterNet
Posted on March 5, 2008, Printed on March 8, 2008

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared plans in January 2005 to reform California's prisons, starting with a rebranding campaign (it's the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now), his announcement signaled much-needed relief for California taxpayers, whose overstretched, scandal-prone prison system was screaming for an overhaul.

But three years later, California maintains the second-highest prison population in the country (171,444 in January 2008) and the highest recidivism rate (a staggering 70 percent).

From the start, people familiar with the embattled prison system were skeptical. "Everybody's going to get new business cards and letterheads," said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, "but we haven't changed with respect to providing inmates anything different."

Gov. Schwarzenegger's largely failed attempts at prison reform -- e.g. reducing the overall prison population and releasing low-risk, nonviolent offenders early -- is a reflection of a larger economic and political dynamic playing out across the country. On one hand, people are starting to realize that bloated prison systems are a resource suck on an already troubled economy. On the other hand, many people -- even in that liberal bastion, California -- cling to the misguided idea that locking up large numbers of lawbreakers will keep the public safer. That leaves politicians like Schwarzenegger trying to straddle a line between appearing "tough on crime" and pushing for meaningful reform. So far, the former has won out. In many ways, California is a microcosm of the American prison crisis -- one that has reached alarming proportions.

The most recent proof is summarized in the title of a report released last week by the Pew Center on the States: "One in 100: Americans Behind Bars 2008." The study examines the state of adult America (no juveniles were included) to deliver a sobering new measure of our incarceration nation. The title statistic alone is jaw-dropping, representing a historic high (or new low, depending on how you look at it) when it comes to American justice. With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in its prison population, well ahead of China (1.5 million) and leaving Russia in the dust (890,000). "Beyond the sheer number of inmates, America is also the global leader in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizenry," the study reports, "outpacing nations like South Africa and Iran."

As always, it turns out the "citizenry" disproportionately consists of black men over 18 (one in 15 are imprisoned) -- and particularly those between the age of 20 and 34 (1 in 9). Recidivism rates are also sky-high. According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than a third of the people admitted to prison in 2005 were arrested on parole violations. "Nationally, more than half of released offenders are back in prison within three years," the Pew study reports, "either for a new crime or for violating the terms of their release." In 1998, thanks in large part to the War on Drugs, the number of nonviolent prisoners hit 1 million -- and has risen since then. The number of women prisoners is also rising, and black women are a microcosm of the national prison epidemic: One in 100 black women in their mid- to late 30s is behind bars.

It's a clarion call for reform, no doubt, but beyond its record-breaking numbers, the Pew study breaks no news -- at least not in the larger scheme of the American criminal justice system. It's a crisis decades in the making, and a 50-state Pew analysis released at the same time last year provided similarly startling projections of where our prisons and jails are headed, to far less fanfare. But one in 100 is a stark figure (and, in fact, the exact number is worse: 1 in 99.1). Thus, both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran stories -- with the Post holding an online Q&A with one of the study's authors the day after it was released. The report even nudged its way into the presidential race: Hillary Clinton issued a press release on her campaign website that day bemoaning the "heartbreaking statistic" and invoking the need for "a president who will be tough on crime, but smart about it too." (As a senator representing a state whose rural regions are littered with the architecture of a prison explosion fanned during her husband's administration, it's an important statement -- if only a statement).

While public shock and dismay over the criminal justice system is a good thing, policy reform usually only comes once those in power recognize public support for measures otherwise considered too politically risky. (Iraq war notwithstanding.) Indeed, a significant part of the Pew study (which was written mainly with politicians in mind) is devoted to showing that policy makers are starting to come around on the prison issue, increasingly talking about being "smart" rather than "tough" on crime. The hope is that others will take their lead. "There's a shift away from the mindset of lock them up and throw away the key," one Ohio Republican legislator is quoted as saying. Alternatives include investing in drug treatment for prisoners -- as well as "drug courts" -- relaxing stringent parole rules and curbing mandatory minimums.

Ironically (if necessarily) the states that appear to be paving the way on prison reform are the ones who lock up the most people. Take Texas: Between 1985 and 2005, its prison population rose by 300 percent, a growth rate even the state's death row machinery couldn't offset. Now, with an estimated prison population of 171,790, according to the Pew study, the Lone Star State is forging "a new path," with a bipartisan decision last year to authorize a "virtual makeover" of the prison system. The overhaul will include more drug treatment for prisoners and "broad changes in parole practices" aimed to curb recidivism rates. If all goes according to plan, the state may be able to shelve emergency blueprints for three new prisons. "It's always been safer politically to build the next prison, rather than stop and see whether that's really the smartest thing to do," the Houston-based chair of the Texas senate's criminal justice committee said. "But we're at the point where I don't think we can afford to do that anymore."

Financially, this is certainly true. Politically, Texas lawmakers will likely face serious challenges when it comes to implementing these reforms. In California, months after tacking the word "rehabilitation" to its Department of Corrections, an organization called Crime Victims United of California created TV ads accusing the governor of abandoning crime victims and endangering Californians by easing up the punishments for people on parole. In concert with the CCPOA, the effort successfully derailed one of the central components of Schwarzenegger's plan. Rather than receive drug counseling or anything comparable, parole violators would be shuttled back to prison.

The move was a big step backward. "Eliminating alternative sanctions as an option for parole violators will undoubtedly drive up the inmate population and exacerbate overcrowding in the California prison system, already jam-packed to nearly twice its design capacity," reported the Los Angeles Times in April 2005. "Experts say such conditions -- with inmates stacked in triple-decker bunks and wedged into gyms, hallways and other spaces not intended as housing -- are a recipe for riots."

In fairness, regardless of what happens in Texas, it's hard to begrudge honest-sounding and measured rhetoric about an issue that historically has attracted so much belligerent posturing. But at the same time, for those who have watched the American criminal justice system consume not just state budgets but whole city blocks, it's also somewhat infuriating. Warehousing massive populations of men and women is, on its face, bad public policy. For politicians to be just waking up to this maddening reality seems dubious. What's more, the dollars and sense tone so many strike when espousing the benefits of prison reform leaves out a major factor -- a veritable elephant in the room when it comes to the prison boom: the powerful incentives that continue to keep the prison population high. From construction to prison security to healthcare, prisons are an industry -- and a highly lucrative one at that. "Profits oil the machinery, keep it humming and speed its growth," wrote criminal justice expert Judith Greene in an essay recently published in Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration (New Press). With states spending $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections, prisons are an enormous cash cow for private companies.

In its 2005 annual report, the Corrections Corporation of America laid out what's at stake for a prison industry facing reform:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities ... The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.
... Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some nonviolent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release ... Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation with electronic monitors who would otherwise be incarcerated. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.

The reforms described by the rather alarmed-sounding CCA mirror those that Pew and other advocates herald as a way to curb the growing prison crisis -- and it appears that lawmakers are finally willing to hear them. "What we're seeing is state leaders around the country starting to call time out," said Pew researcher Susan K. Urahn during the Post's online chat. "We are seeing activity in several states where legislators from both parties are saying, 'We aren't getting our money's worth out of prisons.'" So, for example, "for the same amount of money, you could keep one inmate behind bars for an additional year, or you could provide treatment and intensive supervision for several others -- and cut the recidivism rate considerably." But who will provide treatment -- and how about those electric monitors? Like prison construction itself, prison "reform" will largely amount to trading in one set of services for another.

Reform as it stands mostly means managing a massive pre-existing population that is already mired in the prison-to-parole-to-prison pipeline. With the numbers so high, any small adjustments in the system will yield results. In Texas' case, "even a small tweak -- such as the 5 percent increase in grants by the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole between 2006 and 2007 -- can have an appreciable thinning affect on the prison population." It is too soon to tell how effective such reforms will be in the long term.

Going beyond managing the prison population from state to state to effectively reduce it nationwide will take much more than implementing piecemeal alternatives. The fact that we're no longer seeing an all-out race to the bottom in prison expansion is a good thing, but deeper change will require dismantling the pervasive attachment to conventional wisdom that, despite being erroneous and counterproductive, is still used to justify the record-breaking rise in the American prison population. "One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every 100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense," a Utah-based law professor and former federal judge told the New York Times last week, directly contradicting the conclusions of the Pew study, which focused much attention on the pitfalls of locking up nonviolent and drug offenders.

Others continue to defend the sweeping policies that got us here in the first place. "The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country," conservative sociologist James Q. Wilson told the Washington Post. Hardly unbiased criticism, given that Wilson was one of the intellectual engines behind the "broken windows" theory that helped get us into this mess. (And tell that to black or Latino families who experience the criminal justice system's harshest excesses -- from children growing up without their parents to parents paying crippling phone fees to reach their children. Or tell that to now-elderly prisoners living out their final days behind bars, whose threat to society is negligible and whose failing health makes them highly vulnerable -- and hugely expensive to care for.)

Besides, connecting the prison boom to an increase in public safety is a classic canard. Studies by organizations such as the Vera Institute of Justice have found only a small correlation between prisons and reduced crime. As Urahn puts it, "incarceration is not the dominant force in crime control that many people assume ... despite having quadrupled the prison population over the past 25 years, we have not quadrupled public safety."

What has soared is the cost for taxpayers -- $50 billion per year at the state level and an additional $5 billion at the federal level, according to the Pew study. Perhaps more than even the stunning one in 100 figure, these are the numbers that should shake people awake. But regardless of all proof to the contrary, many Americans remain attached to the idea that prisons keep them safe. "We are jammed up in this situation right now because we have fallen in love with one of the most undocumented beliefs," California Sen. Don Perata said in 2007. "That somehow you get safer if you put more people in jail."

© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at:

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Here are releases from FAMM and the Sentenching Project

FAMM urges Sentencing Commission to make crack cocaine guideline
amendment retroactive

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the nation's leading
sentencing reform organization with 13,000 members, today calls on the
U.S. Sentencing Commission to make retroactive the crack cocaine
guideline amendment that went into effect on November 1. FAMM has
spearheaded the effort to make the crack cocaine guideline change apply
to people already in prison, helping generate over 30,000 letters to
the Sentencing Commission in support of retroactivity.

Nearly 20,000 prisoners could see their sentences reduced by an average
of more than two years, if the so-called "crack minus two"
guideline amendment that went into effect on November 1 is made

On November 13, FAMM members from across the country will attend the
Commission's public hearing on retroactivity in Washington, D.C.,
bearing photographs of their incarcerated loved ones. FAMM president
Julie Stewart will also testify at the hearing at 3:30 p.m.
"Retroactivity of the crack guideline will not only affect the
lives of nearly 20,000 individuals in prison but that of thousands more
- mothers, fathers, daughters and sons - who anxiously wait for them to
return home." said Stewart. Visit to read Stewart's
testimony to the Commission.

Since 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has repeatedly advised
Congress that there is no rational, scientific basis for the 100-to-1
ratio between crack and powder cocaine sentences. The Commission has
also identified the disparity as the "single most important"
factor in longer sentences for African Americans compared to other
racial groups. The criminal law committee of the Judicial Conference of
the United States, which represents the federal judges who would
administer the application of the amendment to people in prison, has
written the Commission in favor of retroactivity.

"Nearly 80 percent of defendants convicted of federal crack
cocaine offenses after Nov. 1 now face sentences 16 months shorter on
average, thanks to sentencing guideline reforms approved by the U.S.
Sentencing Commission," said Julie Stewart, president and founder
of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "The Sentencing
Commission must now make the change retroactive. If a sentence is
sufficient to serve the purposes of punishment for defendants in the
future, it is sufficient for those who were sentenced under unjust
rules in the past. Clearly, justice should not turn on the date an
individual is sentenced."

Many FAMM members, including Lamont and Lawrence Garrison, would
benefit if the changes are made retroactive. Arrested just months after
graduating from Howard University, Lamont received 19 years and
Lawrence received 15 years, respectively, after being accused of
conspiring to distribute crack and powder cocaine. Both brothers would
receive sentence reductions between three and four years.

However, neither the new guideline nor making it retroactive will
impact the statutory 100-to-1 quantity disparity between crack and
powder cocaine. "Congress must act to address the mandatory
minimums that created the cocaine sentencing disparity in 1986 in order
to ensure equal justice for all defendants," said Stewart.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is the national voice for
fair and proportionate sentencing laws. FAMM shines a light on the
human face of sentencing, advocate for state and federal sentencing
reform, and mobilize thousands of individuals and families whose lives
are adversely affected by unjust sentences.

To speak to Julie Stewart about these changes, or to arrange an
interview with people affected by mandatory sentencing laws, including
Lawrence and Lamont Garrison's mother, Karen Garrison, please email

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow I will be testifying before the U.S. Sentencing Commission to urge the
Commission to make retroactive its recent guideline amendment []
on crack cocaine offenses. If the Commission does so, an estimated 19,500 persons
in prison will be eligible for a sentence reduction averaging more than two years.

My testimony []
addresses several issues that the Commission is likely to consider, including:

* Public Safety - Many of the persons who will benefit from retroactivity will have
served many years in prison, far longer on average than persons convicted of powder
cocaine offenses. They are thus likely to be "aging out" of crime and can benefit
from reentry programming in the federal prison system.
* Consistency in Sentencing - The Commission has called for crack cocaine sentencing
reform since 1995, and therefore it is only proper to apply the amendment to persons
in prison, the vast majority of whom have been sentenced since that time.
* Racial Disparity - Since previous drug amendments which were more likely to benefit
whites and Hispanics were made retroactive, there would be serious concerns about
bias in the system if the crack amendment is not made retroactive. An estimated
85% of the persons who would benefit from such a policy are African American.
* Cost Issues - While there would be some additional court and corrections costs
associated with applying the amendment retroactively, these would be more than
offset by the long-term reduction in incarceration that would occur.

My testimony builds on a previous letter []
we have sent to the Commission describing the rationale and feasibility for retroactivity.
And for more information on the issue, please see our web resources on crack cocaine
at [].

The hearing will take place from 9:30 - 4:30 on Tuesday, November 13th at Georgetown
University Law Center, 120 F St., NW, in the 12th Floor Conference Room of the Gewirz
Student Center.

I hope you find this information useful, and I will keep you posted on progress
in this area.


Marc Mauer

Forward email

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

U. S. Prison system a costly failure

Prison System a Costly and Harmful Failure: Report

by Randall Mikkelsen

WASHINGTON - The number of Americans in prison has risen eight-fold since 1970, with little impact on crime but at great cost to taxpayers and society, researchers said in a report calling for a major justice-system overhaul.

The report released on Monday cites statistics and examples ranging from former vice-presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby to a Florida woman’s two-year sentence for throwing a cup of coffee to make its case for reducing the U.S. prison population.

It recommends shorter sentences and parole terms, alternative punishments, more help for released inmates and decriminalizing recreational drugs as steps that would cut the prison population in half, save $20 billion a year and ease social inequality without endangering the public.

“President (George W.) Bush was right,” in commuting Libby’s perjury sentence this year, the report says. “But while he was at it, President Bush should have commuted the sentences of hundreds of thousands of Americans who each year have also received prison sentences for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to our society.”

The report was produced by the JFA Institute, a Washington criminal-justice research group, and its authors included eight criminologists from major U.S. public universities. It was funded by the Rosenbaum Foundation and financier George Soros’s Open Society Institute.

Its recommendations run counter to broad U.S. public support for getting tough on criminals through longer, harsher sentences and to the Bush administration’s anti-drug stance.


But the report cites state and local trends such as medical-marijuana laws as signs attitudes toward punishment may be shifting.

More than 1.5 million people are now in U.S. state and federal prisons, and the number has risen each year from 196,429 in 1970, the report said. Another 750,000 people are in U.S. jails.

Although the U.S. crime rate declined in the 1990s and much of this decade, it is still about the same as in 1973, it said. But the prison population has soared because sentences have gotten longer and people who violate parole or probation are more likely to be imprisoned.

“There is no evidence that keeping people in prison longer makes us any safer,” JFA President James Austin, a co-author of the report, said in a release.

The report said the prison population is projected to grow by another 192,000 in five years, at a cost of $27.5 billion to build and operate additional prisons.

At current rates, one-third of all black males, one-sixth of Latino males, and one in 17 white males will go to prison during their lives.

Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, the report said. The result is increased social and racial inequality.

“The massive incarceration of young males from mostly poor- and working-class neighborhoods, and the taking of women from their families and jobs, has crippled their potential for forming healthy families and achieving economic gains,” it said.

© 2007 Reuters

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Drug Policy Changes

Sentences for crack offenses studied
Thousands of federal prisoners could be released soon
By Darryl Fears
The Washington Post
updated 12:20 a.m. ET, Tues., Nov. 13, 2007

An independent panel is considering reducing the sentences of inmates incarcerated in federal prisons for crack cocaine offenses, which would make thousands of people immediately eligible to be freed.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal prison sentences, established more lenient guidelines this spring for future crack cocaine offenders. The panel is scheduled to consider today a proposal to make the new guidelines retroactive.

Should the panel adopt the new policy, the sentences of 19,500 inmates would be reduced by an average of 27 months. About 3,800 inmates now imprisoned for possession and distribution of crack cocaine could be freed within the next year, according to the commission's analysis. The proposal would cover only inmates in federal prisons and not those in state correctional facilities, where the vast majority of people convicted of drug offenses are held.

By far the largest number -- more than 1,400 -- of those who would be eligible for sentence reductions were convicted in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which has jurisdiction over Northern Virginia and the Richmond area, according to an analysis done by the commission. Nearly 280 inmates convicted in federal courts in Maryland would be eligible, as well as almost 270 prisoners found guilty in the District of Columbia.

The commission is taking up one of the most racially sensitive issues of the two-decades-old war on drugs. Jurists and civil rights organizations have long complained that the commission's guidelines mandate more stringent federal penalties for crack cocaine offenses, which usually involve African Americans, than for crimes involving powder cocaine, which generally involve white people. The chemical properties of the drugs are the same, though crack is potentially more addictive.

Nearly 86 percent of inmates who would be affected by the change are black; slightly fewer than 6 percent are white. Ninety-four percent are men.

The commission's proposal does not change sentencing recommendations for powder cocaine.

Created in 1984 to bring more consistency to sentencing in federal courts, the commission has reduced sentences and made such decisions retroactive for offenses involving LSD, marijuana cultivation and the painkiller OxyContin. But none involved such a large number of inmates or so controversial a drug, or have had such racial implications.

‘Jeopardize community safety’
The Bush administration opposes the new plan, arguing that it would overburden federal courts and release potentially dangerous drug offenders. In a letter to the commission, Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher wrote that the release of a large number of drug offenders "would jeopardize community safety and threatens to unravel the success we have achieved in removing violent crack offenders from high-crime neighborhoods."

But many federal judges, public defenders, parole officers and civil rights advocates favor the move, asserting that the penalties for crack cocaine charges have fallen disproportionately onto black people.

"Making the amendment retroactive will . . . help repair the image of the sentencing guidelines in communities of color," NAACP Chairman Julian Bond wrote to the commission. "It is cruel and arbitrary to fix this injustice for some, but not for others, solely because of the date they were sentenced."

Congress has the power to overturn the proposal, but it is unclear whether it will do so. Lawmakers had 180 days to reverse the commission's May 1 decision to effect more lenient sentences for individuals convicted in some crack-related offenses, and they took no action. Those changes in the guidelines took effect Nov. 1.

The commission, an agency in the judicial branch, consists of seven voting members, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. (The attorney general and the chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission are nonvoting members.) Three commissioners must be federal judges. Four current members were named by President Bush; the rest were tapped by President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Judicial disparity
In part, because of crack's relatively cheap price, most offenders are poor black people. As a result, some civil libertarians cite sentencing discrepancies as one reason for the explosion in the number of African Americans -- especially men -- behind bars.

Testifying before Congress earlier this year, the chairman of the sentencing commission, Ricardo H. Hinojosa, implored lawmakers to ease the crack guidelines. He said the racial differences between users of crack and powder cocaine created an unwarranted judicial disparity.

If the plan for retroactive reductions is adopted, inmates serving time for certain crack offenses can petition a judge for a hearing on whether they can be freed as a result of having their sentences reduced. A judge's decision can be appealed.

Richard L. Delonis, national president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, warned that retroaction would burden prosecutors and overwhelm U.S. marshals, who would have to resettle prisoners into halfway houses.

Among those challenging that argument are the committee on criminal law for the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, said assertions that retroaction will result in "an avalanche of motions . . . are exaggerated." He added: "The courts' workloads should not stand in the way of achieving sentences in 'crack' cocaine cases that are proportionate, fair and serve the interests of justice."

Inmates who might benefit from the reductions include Lamont and Lawrence Garrison, African American twins and graduates of Howard University who were sent to prison for 19 years and 15 years, respectively, for distributing crack cocaine.

Lamont Garrison's sentence could be reduced by four years and his brother's by three years if the guidelines become retroactive, said Monica Pratt Raffanel, a spokeswoman for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that has lobbied for changes to the sentencing guidelines.

"They've been gone for almost 10 years, and the crack in the door with this little change is good," said Karen Garrison, the twins' mother. "As far as the retroactivity, part of it is not to think nothing until I see it. They still have to go back to court. It's not as easy as it seems if it does become retroactive. You just have to do the right thing and hope you get something back."


© 2007

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Sentences reduced for Crack Cocaine


At a time of growing national concern about unequal treatment within the justice
system, the United States Sentencing Commission today lowered the Guideline sentences
for offenses involving crack cocaine, likely impacting 3,500 federally sentenced
defendants each year. Commission concerns about the excessive penalty structure
for crack cocaine offenses prompted the change that on average will reduce defendants'
sentences by 15 months.

The Commission sets an advisory guideline range that federal judges use when sentencing
defendants. Under the old range, average sentences for crack cocaine offenses were
121 months. Now the estimated average sentence will be 106 months. In May the Commission
recommended statutory reforms and proposed to Congress the amendment to decrease
the guideline offense level for crack cocaine offenses. The amendment went unchallenged
by Congress and therefore takes effect today. According to Commission analysis,
the modification would reduce the size of the federal prison population by 3,800
in 15 years. Such a reduction would result in savings of over $87 million, according
to The Sentencing Project.

This change, however, only addresses one aspect of the controversy surrounding crack
cocaine sentencing. The Commission is currently considering whether to apply the
amendment retroactively - a move that would make approximately 19,500 persons in
prison eligible for a reduced sentence. The Commission will hear testimony on this
issue at a Nov. 13 public hearing at which I will testify in favor of retroactivity.

In a submission to the Commission, The Sentencing Project argues that "the Commission,
courts, and commentators all have recognized the undue disparity caused by the Guidelines
since their inception. Thus, defendants who were incarcerated when the problems
with the crack Guidelines first became evident should also be granted an opportunity
to pursue the benefit of this long overdue remedy."

The new policy comes on the heels of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court
in Kimbrough v. the United States. The high court is being asked to uphold the authority
of federal judges to depart from the sentencing guidelines in crack cocaine cases
when they disagree with sentencing policy.Furthermore, bipartisan reform legislation
is pending in Congress and hearings addressing the statutory mandatory minimum sentences
are expected this fall.

Use the following links to read The Sentencing Project's letter []
to the Commission urging retroactivity, and learn more about the momentum to end
the sentencing disparity at: [].


Marc Mauer

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