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  1. Terrapinzflyer
    This year's historic vote in Congress to scale back the harsh and racially disparate mandatory sentences for federal crack cocaine offenses was a watershed event in the long campaign for a more rational approach to drug policy. The Fair Sentencing Act is expected to benefit about 3,000 defendants a year, with an average sentence reduction of twenty-seven months. Defendants convicted of possessing as little as five grams of crack—the weight of two pennies—no longer receive a mandatory five years in prison, and the quantity-based sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses has been significantly reduced. The true value of the new law will be seen, however, only if it helps to open the door to more widespread drug policy reform.

    As welcome as the reforms are, they leave in place the broad structure of mandatory sentencing for most drug offenses, under which judges have no discretion to consider mitigating circumstances such as the defendant's age, parenthood or history of abuse. Such policies have produced outcomes as bizarre as the fifty-five-year prison sentence imposed in 2004 on Weldon Angelos, a 24-year-old music producer in Utah with no prior felony convictions. On three separate occasions, Angelos sold about $350 worth of marijuana to a police informant. At each sale, Angelos possessed a gun, which he neither used nor threatened to use. Yet under the terms of federal mandatory penalties, Judge Paul Cassell, a George W. Bush appointee, was required to impose what was essentially a life sentence, which he called "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."

    In recent years states across the nation have been re-evaluating the excesses of their sentencing policies. In Michigan the extreme "650 Lifer Law," whereby even a first-time offender convicted of selling 650 grams of heroin or cocaine would receive a sentence of life without parole (the same as for first-degree murder), was finally scaled back in the late 1990s after being on the books for twenty years. Former Republican Governor William Milliken, who had signed the law into effect, called it "the worst mistake of my career." Similarly, the rollback of New York's notorious Rockefeller Drug Law in 2009 marked a milestone after decades of campaigning.

    The federal crack reform continues this incremental move toward more rational sentencing policies, but much work remains to be done. Drug courts, for example, have been shown to help divert low-level offenders into treatment rather than prison, but many of them impose strict criteria for admission, often focusing on cases in which prison terms would be unlikely to be imposed even without the program. School-zone drug laws, imposed with the inarguable goal of reducing drug sales to children, often apply as well to drug sales between consenting adults. This has a predictable racial impact, because large portions of densely populated urban areas, disproportionately comprising communities of color, lie within a school zone. In New Jersey, fully 96 percent of such penalties were imposed on African-Americans or Latinos, an outcome that in 2010 persuaded the legislature to restore discretion to judges in such cases.

    The first test of the impact of the Fair Sentencing Act will come when the US Sentencing Commission votes on whether to apply the guideline changes retroactively to the thousands of people who committed their crack cocaine offense before the bill was signed. Along with that, the commission's report on mandatory sentencing, due out next year, may help to strengthen the argument about excessive punishments.

    Ultimately, the scope of reform can be measured only by our ability to level the playing field in addressing substance abuse. While the war on drugs has been waged for decades, it is actually two very distinct wars. In well-heeled communities substance abuse is treated as a public health problem best addressed by prevention and treatment. In low-income communities of color, it is far more likely to be considered a criminal justice problem, one best addressed with more police, prosecutors and prisons. We have a better model at hand; the challenge is to implement it more broadly and equitably.

    Marc Mauer
    December 9, 2010 | This article appeared in the December 27, 2010 edition of The Nation.



  1. talltom
    Here are two sarcastic articles on Obama's record on commutations from a publication called "Pardon Power." The first is dated November 12, 2010, the second December 3.

    It would be interesting to find a table showing the number of pardons/commutations and the dates they were granted, for alll presidents.

    Let Us Be the FIRST to Complain About Obama's Record on Commutations

    In just a few days, President Obama will pass Bill Clinton as the slowest Democratic president in history to grant a pardon or commutation of sentence. If history is a guide of any value, he will grant a handful of pardons sometime a couple of weeks into December. As this blog has reported, one out of every two pardons granted over the last 39 years has been granted in December.

    When the handful of pardons is dumped, the scene will be predictable enough. In all likelihood, none of them will have even a remote sense of "controversy" about them. Obama was gratuitously critical of Bush's commutation of sentence for Scooter Libby. He also appointed Eric Holder as attorney general, who brought more pardon luggage to that office than any individual in history (Marc Rich, FALN terrorists, etc.). And, of course, Obama, who so condescendingly noted (in a debate) that he could do more than one thing at time, can always claim, to the satisfaction of many, that he has been far too busy doing other, more important things. To top it off, Obama mysteriously retained George W. Bush's pardon attorney! In sum, there is no time for pardon controversies ... at this point.

    So, out the innocuous handful of pardons will come.

    People who follow the pardon power and comment on such matters frequently (and those representing pardon applicants!) will timidly praise the president for waking up and discovering his constitutional powers. But they will also express their wish that the administration will do more. If pressed about the matter directly, publicly, the president, or his spokesperson, will describe clemency decisions as "tough" decisions, that take time and require patience. The pitiful pose as someone being "pushed" to pardon in haste is/always has been an effective PR ploy. "Ya can't please everybody" blah blah blah.

    But let us be the first to say, Mr. President, that dumping a handful of pardons at Christmas is a very sorry way to demonstrate that you (or the DOJ) has anything like a serious clemency program. Instead, it clearly sends the signal that the justice that can only be wrought by acts of mercy is a mere afterthought, inappropriate for the other 11 months of the year, when you see yourself as taking care of "important" stuff.

    In addition, Christmastime pardons send a very wrongheaded - if not outright dangerous - signal to the American people that pardons are something like Christmas gifts, passed out during the holiday season, to those who actually may, or may not deserve them. Which is to say, it is no wonder the DOJ and OPA are so shy about pardons. The very timing of them implies their work re the assessment of pardon applications is a joke.

    Of course, if the media were to inquire about the "typical" pardon half as much as they do the "controversial" ones, they would learn (and educate the American public to) the fact that the typical act of clemency does not spring anyone from prison or overturn the judgement of judges and juries at all! In fact, the typical act of clemency simply restores the civil rights of individuals who have served their time, waited a prescribed period before applying for clemency and have become productive members of society. Which is to say, their pardon was not really much of anything like a "gift." They earned it. Believe it, dear reader, when a person gets a pardon out of the DOJ in the last 4 decades - it is earned!

    So, while some may be encouraged by the morsels of mercy that President Obama distributes while Santa Claus is in the neighborhood, let us be the first to complain. Shame on you, Mr. President. To date, your clemency "policy" deserves nothing but scorn, slight regard and contempt. Like most presidents before you, you should make pardons (and justice) a year-long concern, and insist that it be the year-long concern of the bureauc

    Bureaucrats are supposed to be working on applications all year long. When there is little evidence they have more interest in clemency than you, they should be summarily removed, pronto.

    Pardon Power
    November 12, 2010
    Obama Drops His First Pardons!

    682 days into his presidency, Barack Obama, the slowest Democratic president in history to exercise the pardon power, has finally discovered the dark corners of Article II of the Constitution and, you know, the whole "checks and balances" thing. Yes, today, the President has granted 9 pardons. Why, even William Henry Harrison, who only served 32 days before having the poor taste to die, found a way to grant 3 pardons!

    We expected at least a little action from Mr. Obama just about now, since 1 out of every 2 pardons granted over the last 39 years has been granted in the month of December. The offenses addressed in the 9 most recent pardons are distributed across decades as follows:

    1960s (2) 1970s (1) 1980s (3) 1990s (3)

    As a result, the average distance between each sentence and the subsequent presidential pardon is a whopping 28.3 years! Even the smallest distance is over 11 years.

    The retributive justice hawks in the Department of Justice must be mighty proud of the Nixonian law-and-order smack down that has kept most of this AARP-like group at bay for decades. Poor 73-year old Russel Dixon ... his liquor law violation was more than 50 years ago (that is to say, before President Obama was even born)! Dixon says he just wanted to clear his name before he died!

    James Banks, now 66-years-old, was only 27 when he got caught stealing less than $100 worth of plywood and nails from a construction site. Yes, you read that right! The horror!

    Ronald Foster, now 65-years old, committed his crime when he was an 18-year-old Marine serving in Vietnam. But Foster clearly had no business being eager for mercy, given the utterly shocking, heinous nature of his crime (whittling the edges of coins so as to trick vending machines). Unspeakable! Thus, the determination on his clemency application, filed in 2008, absolutely required a good 32 months of deliberation.

    Floretta Leavy (a retiree from the Army) waited 46 months. 58-year old Tim Gallagher filed his application sometime in 2006! Roxanne Hettinger first applied way back in 1993!

    Yep, one thing is for certain: this group of kids (including 85-year-old Laurens Dorsey and Edgar Kranz, an Air Force retiree) will think twice before ever violating the law again! As Samuel T. Morison (a former staff attorney in the Office of the Pardon Attorney, Department of Justice) has pointed out, increasingly pardons are granted to people who need (or can actually benefit from) them the very least.

    Six out of the nine pardons were granted to individuals whose violations were, even at the time they were committed, considered so minor that they were not even given prison time - or even so much as a jail sentence. Instead, they were merely placed on probation. Imagine the vast amounts of precious political capital President Obama has spent in making such risky decisions! How can he possibly expect to win in 2012?

    Pardon Power
    December 3, 2010

  2. Balzafire
    Crack prisoners could get break on sentences

    [imgl=white]https://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=21044&stc=1&d=1309445997[/imgl]WASHINGTON – One in every 20 federal prisoners could be eligible for early release under a potential sentencing change for inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses that will be voted on Thursday.

    Congress passed a law last year substantially lowering recommended sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine crimes, ranging from possession to trafficking. The idea was to fix a longstanding disparity in punishments for crack and powder cocaine crimes, but the new, lower recommended sentences for crack offenders didn't automatically apply to people already in prison. Now it is up to the six-member U.S. Sentencing Commission to decide whether offenders locked up for crack offenses before the new law took effect should also benefit and get out earlier.

    Up to 12,000 of the some 200,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons nationwide could be affected. A report by the commission estimates that the average sentence reduction would be approximately three years, though a judge would still have to approve any reduction.

    "There is a tremendous amount of hope out there," said Mary Price, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group for prisoners and their relatives. "There is a potential that people could see their sentences reduced, for some quite dramatically."

    At a meeting in early June, commissioners suggested they want to apply the lower recommended sentences to at least some past offenders, but it is unclear how many. Advocacy groups have asked for the widest possible application while a group of 15 Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate wrote a letter to the commission saying the Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress last year was not intended to benefit any past offenders.

    At a hearing in early June about the potential changes, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took the middle road. He expressed support for making the new, lower guideline sentences retroactive but suggested limits on who should be eligible. Holder said prisoners who used weapons during their crimes or who have significant criminal histories should not be eligible. If the commission adopts that view it could cut in half the number of prisoners who would stand to benefit from 12,000 to approximately 6,000.

    Any decision about who should be eligible for a reduced sentence will have to be approved by four of the commission's six members, who include judges and former prosecutors. Once the commission votes, Congress has until the end of October to reject or modify the guidelines, though that is considered unlikely.

    Associated Press
    June 30, 2011
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