States Push For Prison Sentence Reform, And Prosecutors Push Back – by MARTIN KASTE July 09, 2014 3:32 AM ET


The Lafayette Parish Correctional Center in downtown Lafayette, La. By most counts, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, but sentencing reformers have loosened some of the state's mandatory minimum sentences and made parole slightly easier to get.

The Lafayette Parish Correctional Center in downtown Lafayette, La. By most counts, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, but sentencing reformers have loosened some of the state’s mandatory minimum sentences and made parole slightly easier to get.

Denny Culbert for NPR

Some red states like Louisiana and Texas have emerged as leaders in a new movement: to divert offenders from prisons and into drug treatment, work release and other incarceration alternatives.

By most counts, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. In recent years, sentencing reformers in the capital, Baton Rouge, have loosened some mandatory minimum sentences and have made parole slightly easier for offenders to get.

But as reformers in Louisiana push for change, they’re also running into stiffening resistance — especially from local prosecutors.

It’s all happening as the number of Americans behind bars has started to decline. There are multiple reasons for that, including crime rates that have been dropping since the 1990s, as well as the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2011 requirement that tough-on-crime California reduce its prison population.

And there’s another factor: a growing bipartisan consensus for sentencing reform. Local politicians are getting political cover for those efforts from conservative groups like Right on Crime.

“It is a growing consensus on the right that this is the direction we want to be going,” says Kevin Kane, of the libertarian-leaning Pelican Institute for Public Policy in Louisiana. “Most people will point to, ‘Well, it’s saving money, and that’s all conservatives care about.’ But I think it goes beyond that.”

Kane says libertarians are interested in limiting the government’s power to lock people away, while the religious right likes the idea of giving people a shot at redemption — especially when it comes to nonviolent drug offenders.

Still, not everyone is embracing these ideas. In some places, there’s been considerable pushback — especially when the idea of eliminating prison time for drug offenders arises.

Pushback In Louisiana

In Lafayette, La., the sheriff’s department has reinvented its approach to drug offenders. Marie Collins, a counselor by trade, runs the department’s treatment programs. She estimates at least 80 percent of the people in the parish jail got there because of substance abuse.

Marie Collins, a Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office counselor, estimates at least 80 percent of the people in the parish jail got there because of substance abuse.i

Marie Collins, a Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office counselor, estimates at least 80 percent of the people in the parish jail got there because of substance abuse.

Denny Culbert for NPR

“The concept of, ‘Let’s lock them up and throw away the key,’ does nothing for society and does nothing for us, because you haven’t taught them anything,” she says.

So there’s counseling offered inside this jail. The sheriff’s staff is also constantly scanning the jail’s population for nonviolent inmates it can releaseearly into the appropriate programs on the outside.

One option is the Acadiana Recovery Center right next door, a treatment program run by Collins and the sheriff’s department — though the staffers play down their connection to law enforcement. In fact, you can seek treatment there even if you’ve never been arrested.

“If we can be proactive and provide the treatment before they get to jail, it’ll actually cost us less money,” Collins says.

Arguments like that are making headway at the state level. But reformers in Baton Rouge are also experiencing pushback. By most counts, the state has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and there’s a traditional preference for long sentences.

The state’s prison population is also hard for lawmakers to ignore. Under guard and dressed in gray jumpsuits marked “offender,” inmates work at the capitol building, emptying wastebaskets and serving food in the cafeteria.

Liz Mangham, a lobbyist, has represented the conservative sentencing reformers in Baton Rouge. While they’ve made progress, she says they appeared to cross a red line this spring with a bill to step down Louisiana’s stiff penalties for possession of marijuana.

Under current law, possession is a felony on the second offense. A third may get you as much as 20 years in prison. Mangham recalls the scene when the bill came up for a crucial hearing.

“The Judiciary Committee room was full. The anteroom across the hall, which is twice the size, was full, and the halls were full … of [district attorneys] and sheriffs coming down to oppose the bill,” she says.

The bill died on the spot. In Louisiana and other parts of the South, district attorneys and sheriffs — who Mangham calls “the courthouse crowd” — have a lot of political clout at the state level. She says it’s understandable why most sheriffs opposed the bill, because they house state prisoners in parish jails and every prisoner represents a payment from the state.

“So when you’re making money to warehouse prisoners, why on earth would you be in favor of sentencing reform?” Mangham says.

But the district attorneys’ opposition is more complex — and interesting. And it’s emblematic of a growing conflict that’s taking place nationally between sentencing reformers and prosecutors.

The Issue: Leverage

The vast majority of criminal cases in America are resolved through plea bargains. Defendants plead guilty out of fear of getting a worse sentence if they don’t. Plea bargains jumped above 90 percent in the 1980s and ’90s, in part because a wave of harsh new sentences for drug offenses strengthened prosecutors’ hands when bargaining with defendants.

“For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone’s head 10, 20 years in jail, that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want,” says Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans and former public defender.

U.S. drug war slowly shifts fire away from low-level users – By Jerry Markon, Published: March 30


Someone was with Salvatore Marchese when he died of a heroin overdose, but no one called 911.

So his mother, Patty DiRenzo, a legal aide, began a quest to help make sure that others wouldn’t be afraid to make that call. She created a Facebook page, wrote New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nearly every day and called all 120 members of the state legislature.

The grieving mother accomplished what would have been inconceivable a few short years ago, much less back when the nation launched its war on drugs: She helped pass a bill, signed by a Republican governor, that lets people get away with using drugs for the sake of saving lives.

The state’s new “Good Samaritan law,’’ which immunizes from prosecution people who call 911 to report an overdose even if they are using drugs themselves, is part of an emerging shift in the country’s approach to illegal drugs.

Four decades after the federal government declared war on narcotics, the prevailing tough-on-drugs mentality is giving way to a more nuanced view, one that emphasizes treatment and health nearly as much as courtrooms and law enforcement, according to addiction specialists and other experts.

The changes are both rhetorical and substantive, reflecting fiscal problems caused in part by prisons bulging with drug offenders and a shifting social ethos that views some drug use as less harmful than in the past. States are driving the trend. At least 30 have modified drug crime penalties since 2009, often repealing or reducing tough mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level offenses, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which works with states and tracks the legislation.

One-third of the states now have a Good Samaritan law, with the majority enacted since 2012.

That is the same year that Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use. “There is certainly more momentum than ever before,’’ said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group that expects that a dozen or more states are likely to legalize the drug within several years.

Change is also afoot at the federal level, where FBI data show drug arrests are down 18 percent since 2006, and the Obama administration tries to avoid the phrase “war on drugs.” The Justice Department is strongly supporting changes being considered by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that would reduce sentences for most drug offenders, and the Senate Judiciary Committee recently passed a bipartisan bill that would cut them in half for some drug crimes.

No one is suggesting that the fight against drugs is over. Federal agents are still battling traffickers on the southwest border, and the administration has taken aggressive steps against abuse of prescription drugs and other illicit substances. Polls show that even as a majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, overwhelming numbers still oppose that step for cocaine and heroin.

And while many of the drug law changes have drawn bipartisan support, some prosecutors are opposing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The marijuana legalization campaign has also faced resistance from former Drug Enforcement Administration leaders and other critics.

But after a generation of anti-drug messages symbolized by the “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s and enforcement accompanied by martial metaphors, experts say a broad consensus is emerging around a crucial distinction. Under the new paradigm, they said, traffickers engaged in the business of drugs will still face long prison terms, while lower-level users will increasingly be viewed as addicts with a treatable illness.

“States in particular are starting to make much bigger distinctions between personal use and commercial activity,’’ said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, who pointed out that some states have recently toughened penalties for large-scale drug sales while relaxing them for drug possession.

Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on criminal sentencing, called the new landscape a strategic shift rather than a “retreat” from the anti-drug war. “We are retrenching,’’ he said, “and coming to the view that if we deploy our forces more effectively, that will allow us to win this war and take a healthier approach.’’

Era of tough enforcement

It was June 1971 when President Richard M. Nixon sent a special message to Congress and targeted drugs as America’s “public enemy number one.’’

“If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us,’’ Nixon said in the message as he called drug abuse “a national emergency” and established a White House office to attack it.

It was the start of what came to be known as the war on drugs, which emerged as a reaction to fear of crime and the perceived excesses of the 1960s. The crackdown escalated in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan as Congress, with bipartisan support, established tough mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana and other drugs.

With aggressive enforcement, the number of people jailed nationwide for drug offenses exploded from 41,000 in 1980 to 499,000 in 2011, according to the Sentencing Project, a think tank that advocates criminal justice changes.

 

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Obama commutes eight drug prison terms 19 December 2013 Last updated at 17:38 ET


President Barack Obama has commuted the sentences of eight Americans who would have had shorter prison terms under current drug sentencing laws.

Each of the six men and two women had served more than 15 years in prison for charges related to crack cocaine.

A 2010 law reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine offences.

And in August, the administration dropped mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

Critics say that heavy drug sentences have hit minorities hardest.

‘Too late’

In a statement, Mr Obama said the 2010 law, the Fair Sentencing Act, had begun “to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late”.

President Barack Obama speaks to the media on 18 December 2013
President Barack Obama has previously commuted the sentence of only one person

“Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognised as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

Some 47% of US prison inmates have been incarcerated for drug offences, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Many of those with newly commuted sentences were young when they received lengthy prison terms. Six of those on the commutation list had been sentenced to life in prison.

Most will be released in April. One man will go free immediately and another will be released in 2018.

Among those ending their prison terms:

Before this, Mr Obama had commuted only one sentence in the five years of his presidency, also involving another drug case, and had pardoned 39 people.

On Thursday, the president also pardoned 13 others for various crimes. All had already served their full prison terms.

A pardon forgives a crime and wipes out the conviction, while a commutation leaves the conviction but ends the punishment.

In August, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation’s prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.

And a bill in Congress would apply the Fair Sentencing Act to some drug offenders already in prison, allowing potential clemency to a group of people estimated to be in the thousands by advocacy groups.

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