Mandatory Minimums

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Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (MAP) - Sun, 12/09/2018 - 11:37
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Categories: Mandatory Minimums

McConnell Puts Kibosh on Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (STDW) - Mon, 11/19/2018 - 06:56

Prospects for a major federal sentencing reform bill brightened on Wednesday with President Trump's announcement that he would support the effort, but by week's end, those prospects dimmed as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told the president he wouldn't bring the bill to a floor vote this year.

[Update: McConnell is facing pressure from the religious right as well as from the president to allow a vote.]

[image:1 align:left caption:true]The bill is known as the First Step Act. The House passed a version of this spring, but the House version was limited to reforms on the "back end," such as slightly increasing good time credits for federal prisoners and providing higher levels of reentry and rehabilitation services.

The Senate bill crafted by a handful of key senators and pushed hard by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner incorporates the language of the House bill, but also adds actual sentencing reforms. Under the Senate bill:

  • Thousands of prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 (the date of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced, but did not eliminate sentencing disparities) would get the chance to petition for a reduced sentence.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses would be lowered.
  • Life sentences for drug offenders with three convictions ("three strikes") would be reduced to 25 years.

Even though the bill has been a top priority of Kushner's and had the support of numerous national law enforcement groups and conservative criminal justice groups, as well as the support of key Democrats, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), McConnell told Trump at a White House meeting Thursday that there wasn't enough time in the lame-duck session to take it up.

"McConnell said he didn't have the time, that's his way of saying this isn't going to happen," said Michael Collins, interim director of the Drug Policy Alliance's (DPA) Office of National Affairs. "McConnell was a roadblock under Obama and he's a roadblock now. He likes to hide behind the process but I think he just doesn't like or care about this issue."

McConnell's move upset what should have been a done deal, said Collins.

"Once First Step passed the House, some key figures on the Senate side, such as Sens. Durbin and Grassley, said it wouldn't move without sentencing reform, and then Kushner facilitated negotiations between the Senate and the White House and they reached broad agreement this summer," he recounted. "Then the question was can we get this to the floor? McConnell sat down with Grassley and Durbin and said after the elections, and Trump agreed with that. The idea was that if Trump would get on board, McConnell would hold a vote, would whip a vote. He wanted 60 votes; there are 60 votes. Then McConnell said the Senate has a lot to do. At the end of the day, it's up to McConnell. When Trump endorsed people thought it would move McConnell, but he just poured cold water on it."

If McConnell sticks to his guns, then sentencing reform will be dead in this Congress. And as long as Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, he is likely to be an impediment to reform.

"McConnell is the obstacle -- it's not Tom Cotton (R-AR) or Jeff Sessions -- it's McConnell, and he's going to be there next year and the year after that," said Collins. "He is the prime obstacle to criminal justice reform, even though a lot of groups on the right are in favor of this. Since he isn't going to listen to us, it's going to be up to them to figure this out."

"If McConnell doesn't prioritize this, it doesn't happen," said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group. That's a shame, she said, because "I'm optimistic both parties would support this if they got the chance."

There is a possible upside: Failure to pass limited criminal justice reform this year could lead to a bill next year that goes further than limited sentencing reforms.

"It's been a long, hard slog to get to where we are," said Collins, "but now some people are saying this compromise stuff gets us nowhere and we should be doing things like enacting retroactivity for sentencing reforms, eliminating all mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and decriminalizing all drugs."

"My job is to continue to beat the drum for change," said Gotsch. "It's always hard, and we don't get those opportunities a lot. Momentum doesn't come very often, regardless of who is in power, and we can't let these small windows close without doing our best to move the ball forward. This has been my concern for 20 years -- the conditions these prisoners face, the injustice -- and we will keep pushing. The federal prison system is in crisis."

The federal prison population peaked at 219,000 in 2013, driven largely by drug war prosecutions, and has since declined slightly to about 181,000. But that number is still three times the number of federal prisoners behind bars when the war on drugs ratcheted up under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. There is still lots of work to be done, but perhaps next time, we demand deeper changes.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of both Drug War Chronicle and Drug Reporter.

Categories: Mandatory Minimums

How This Red State's Cruel Meth Laws Are Putting Women Behind Bars in Record Numbers [FEATURE]

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (STDW) - Wed, 10/17/2018 - 03:17

Like other Great Plains states, South Dakota has a methamphetamine problem. But it's becoming increasingly evident that South Dakota also has a problem with the way it deals with meth.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Because of its strict drug laws, the state is seeing a dramatic spike in women being sent to prison for meth. According to a new report from the nonprofit South Dakota News Watch, the number of women in prison in the state has jumped 35 percent since 2013, while the male prison population has increased at only one-quarter of that rate. Nearly two-thirds of all women prisoners in the state are there for nonviolent drug offenses. The state now has the fourth-highest incarceration rate for women in the country, trailing only Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Kentucky.

Overall, about one-third of all inmates in the state are doing time for drug-related offenses, the majority of them for simple drug possession. That's a higher percentage than most other states, where drug offenders tend to make up somewhere around 20 to 25 percent of the inmate population.

The high drug-related incarceration overall and for women in particular stems less from the prevalence of drug use than from the conservative, largely rural state's reaction to it. South Dakota has not responded to decades of failed war on drug policies by reforming them, but by doubling down on them.

The state has not moved toward the defelonization of drug possession, as at least 16 others have. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction. South Dakota has mandatory sentencing laws that include prison for not only for the manufacture and distribution of meth but also for simple possession.

State lawmakers and cops have long favored tough drug laws, and they are still at it. This year, state Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) guided bills through the legislature that heighten penalties for meth dealing and increase sentences for dealers whose clients overdose and die.

But the state's most notorious and contentious drug law -- bone that is sending hundreds of people to prison -- is the state's "possession by ingestion" statute. Otherwise known as an "internal possession" law, the statute allows for a felony conviction if a drug test reveals the presence of illicit drugs in a suspect's system. (The law also applies to marijuana, but the penalty for testing positive for pot is only a misdemeanor.)

The strictest in the nation, that law was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2004. Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed a measure that would have slightly tweaked the law by removing marijuana, but that bill was killed by a unanimous vote in the first committee that heard it.

As of August, about nine percent of the male prison population and an astonishing 21 percent of the female prison population was doing time for unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance. That's right: More than one out of five women prisoners in South Dakota is behind prison bars for nothing more than having used drugs.

South Dakota law enforcement and lawmakers may be happy with the status quo, but the man who actually runs the prison system isn't. State Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk told South Dakota News Watch that the cops' and courts' proclivity for busting and imprisoning women on drug charges is creating an expensive and ineffective cycle of imprisonment, release, and recidivism.

"We seem to think that locking individuals up is going to solve their addiction problem," said Kaemingk, a former drug officer. "They're coming to us in corrections and we're thinking that solves the problem, and I think in many cases it makes the problem worse."

Criminalizing addiction, especially among women who are mothers, Kraemingk said, creates a situation where the children are more likely to end up in prison themselves. He pointed to national studies showing that up to 80 percent of children who have parents behind bars will end up there themselves.

"Imprisonment in South Dakota is generational," Kaemingk said. "The females behind prison walls have experienced that as a child. The generation we have back there now as inmates experienced the same things when they were children."

Kraemingk and other relatively enlightened actors in the state are pushing for enhanced treatment opportunities and expanding drug courts, among other measures, to better deal with the situation, but nobody seems to be talking about not involving these women in the criminal justice system in the first place. A first step would be getting rid of that hideous "possession by ingestion" statute. The next step would be defelonization or outright decriminalization of drug possession in the state. Drug use absent harm to others should not be the state's business.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Categories: Mandatory Minimums
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