[A press release from our friends at Drug Policy Alliance]
Democratic Majority Has Opportunity to Find Exit Strategy for Failed War on Drugs
Access to Treatment, Reduction of HIV and Drug Overdoses and Tackling Inhumane Mandatory Minimums Now Possible with “New Direction” Dems
The Democratic takeover of Congress provides the best opportunity to reform our nation’s failed drug war policies in more than a decade, says the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. Moreover, the takeover sets the stage for a showdown between Congress and the Bush Administration over federal raids on medical marijuana patients, military aid to Colombia, and numerous other White House drug policies.
“Republicans have incarcerated millions of nonviolent drug law offenders and wasted tens of billions of taxpayer dollars, yet drugs are readily available and the harms associated with them continue to mount,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Democrats need to step up to the plate and prove to Americans that they can do what Republicans couldn’t do: reduce the harms associated with both drug abuse and the war on drugs.”
Over the last decade, Democrats in Congress supported efforts to reform punitive drug laws and expand opportunities for drug treatment at greater numbers than Republicans. For instance, 144 House Democrats voted earlier this year to prohibit the U.S. Justice Department from undermining state medical marijuana laws (73 percent of voting Democrats). Only 18 Republicans supported the measure (just 8 percent of voting Republicans). 169 Democrats voted last year to cut funding to the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (more commonly known as “Plan Colombia”). Only 19 Republicans voted to do so. While former Republican committee chairs, such as Rep. James Sensenbrenner (WI) and Rep. Mark Souder (IN), have been cheerleaders of draconian legislation, the new Democratic chairs in the new Congress are solid drug policy reformers. Many support reforming mandatory minimum drug sentences, legalizing medical marijuana, eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, diverting nonviolent drug law offenders to drug treatment, and lifting the ban on using federal money for syringe exchange programs.
Despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars and incarcerating millions of Americans, illegal drugs remain cheap, potent, and widely available in every community. Meanwhile, the harms associated with drug abuse - addiction, overdose, the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, etc - continue to mount. The Drug Policy Alliance urges Democrats to set a “new bottom line” in the government’s approach to drugs and to not repeat the mistakes Republicans made. In a five-point agenda the Drug Policy Alliance offered Democrats advice on how to reduce the harm associated with both drug abuse and the war on drugs.
--Hold hearings on the Bush Administration’s failure to protect the American people. President Bush has diverted law enforcement resources away from fighting drug cartels and terrorist cells to arresting medical marijuana patients, doctors, and low-level drug law offenders. His administration’s Reefer-Madness-like obsession with marijuana is largely responsible for our country’s failure to deal adequately with methamphetamine. And the Bush Administration’s radical crop eradication plans in Afghanistan and Colombia are driving poor families into the arms of our enemies, destabilizing those countries and boosting the efforts of those who seek to harm America.
--Reprioritize federal law enforcement resources. Democrats should change federal law to prevent the Bush Administration from squandering scarce resources. Most notably, Democrats should prohibit the Justice Department from undermining state medical marijuana laws. They also should raise the threshold amounts of drugs it takes to trigger mandatory minimum drug sentences, in order to encourage the Justice Department to target major drug traffickers.
--Make treatment available to all who need it. The quickest, cheapest, and most effective way to undermine drug markets and reduce drug abuse is to make substance abuse treatment available to all who need it, whenever they need it, and as often as they need it. Democrats should increase federal funding for drug treatment (including the Bush Administration’s model voucher treatment program, Access to Recovery), establish policies that divert nonviolent drug law offenders to treatment instead of jail, and increase the number of people who can access substance abuse treatment through their health insurance.
--Eliminate the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. The 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is responsible for immense racial disparities in the federal criminal justice system. Several Senate Republicans have already introduced a bill to reform the sentences —although the legislation does not go far enough. And President Bush indicated early in his Administration that he would be open to reducing the disparity. Democrats should work to pass bi-partisan legislation eliminating this disparity.
--Enact legislation to reduce drug overdose deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Annual drug overdoses have more than doubled under Republican rule, yet not a single federal dollar goes to overdose prevention. Similarly, the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases from the sharing of dirty needles continues to mount; but not a single federal dollar goes to syringe exchange programs. Democrats can save thousands of lives a year by creating a federal grant program to help cities establish overdose prevention programs and lifting the federal ban that prohibits using federal money for syringe exchange. Preventing America’s sons and daughters from dying is a winning issue.
“For years Democrats have allowed Republicans to beat them up on drug-related issues. But now they have an opportunity to go on the offensive with a clear reform message that will really impress voters,” said Piper. “The Democrats can distinguish themselves from Republicans and show voters that they can solve complicated problems.”
The New York Times
January 9, 2007
Judges Look to New Congress for Changes in Mandatory Sentencing Laws
BYLINE: By LYNETTE CLEMETSON; Sabrina Pacifici contributed reporting.
SECTION: Section A; Column 1; National Desk; Pg. 12
LENGTH: 1361 words
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, Jan. 8
Federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandated prison terms for certain offenses are expected to come under fresh scrutiny as Democrats assume control of Congress.
Among those eagerly awaiting signs of change are federal judges, including many conservatives appointed by Republican presidents. They say the automatic sentences, determined by Congress, strip judges of individual discretion and result in ineffective, excessive penalties, often for low-level offenders.
Judges have long been critical of the automatic prison terms, referred to as mandatory minimum sentences, which were most recently enacted by Congress in 1986 in part to stem the drug trade. Now influential judges across the ideological spectrum say that the combination of Democratic leadership and growing Republican support for modest change may provide the best chance in years for a review of the system.
''With a changing of the guard, there should at least should be some discussion,'' said William W. Wilkins, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan.
The House Judiciary Committee, under the new leadership of Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, is planning hearings on the laws, starting later this month or in early February. One of the first issues planned for review is the sentencing disparity between offenses involving powder and crack cocaine.
The possession or trafficking of crack brings much harsher penalties than those for similar amounts of the powder form of the drug. Mr. Conyers, a longtime critic of mandatory minimum sentences, favors treating both drugs equally.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has no immediate plans for hearings. But Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, also supports some changes in the sentencing policy for crack cocaine convictions (though more modest than Mr. Conyers and some other Democrats favor), and Judiciary Committee staff members say a serious Senate review of the issue is likely in the current Congress.
Many law enforcement officials support tough, automatic sentences and argue that weakening existing laws will cause an increase in drug trafficking and violent crime. Many judges say current laws have clogged jails and too often punish low-level offenders. Some judges also argue that automatic lengthy sentences give prosecutors an unfair bargaining tool that they can use to tailor charges and press defendants into plea bargains.
''These sentences can serve a purpose in certain types of cases involving certain types of offenders,'' said Judge Reggie B. Walton of Federal District Court in the District of Columbia, who was appointed by President Bush, ''but when you apply them across the board you end up doing a disservice not just to individuals but to society at large.''
Several judges say that broad inclusion in the coming Congressional hearings on sentencing would mark a notable departure from Judiciary Committee activity under the former Republican chairman, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, who many judges say maintained an antagonistic stance toward judges.
''There was no question that judges were targeted under the Sensenbrenner committee for speaking out,'' said Judge Nancy Gertner, a Federal District Court judge appointed by President Bill Clinton who teaches a course on sentencing policy at Yale Law School.
Judge Gertner and others point to the example of Judge James Rosenbaum, a Reagan appointee who, in 2003, faced a Congressional review of his sentencing decisions under a barrage of criticism that he and other federal judges were too lenient. Many in the judicial community argued that Judge Rosenbaum was singled out because he criticized a proposal to increase federal sentences in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
Most judges shy away from direct formal involvement in legislative matters. But many say private interactions with legislators that do not focus on specific cases but on policy matters of concern to the judiciary are appropriate.
Judge Wilkins, a former legislative assistant to Senator Strom Thurmond, said he believed private conversations on mandatory minimum sentences with his own congressman, Representative Bob Inglis, Republican of South Carolina, helped change the legislator's position.
Mr. Inglis, once a supporter of tough automatic sentences, said during a 1995 House vote that he would never vote for them again and has since become a Republican leader on sentencing reform.
''I was delighted that he took a principled stand, and I would like to think I was of some benefit to him in getting there,'' said Judge Wilkins, who served as the first chairman of the Federal Sentencing Commission, the body charged by Congress with developing sentencing guidelines and collecting and analyzing statistics.
Some judges have expressed displeasure with the system from the bench or in written opinions.
At a sentencing last January Judge Walter S. Smith Jr., of the Western District of Texas, was required to add 10 years to the already mandated 10-year sentence in a crack distribution case because a gun was found under the defendant's bed. During the sentencing, the judge stated, ''This is one of those situations where I'd like to see a congressman sitting before me.''
In an impassioned written opinion in 2004, Judge Paul G. Cassell of the Federal District Court in Utah, who was appointed by President Bush, called the mandatory 55-year sentence he was forced to give a low-level marijuana dealer who possessed, but did not use or brandish, a firearm ''simply irrational.''
In the opinion, Judge Cassell recommended a commutation of the sentence by the president, noting that the sentence, with consecutive 25-year terms for firearm possession, was longer than those required for an airport hijacker, second-degree murderer or a rapist.
The Supreme Court declined last fall to hear the case. But an amicus brief urging the court to take the case included signatures from legal figures like William Sessions, the former F.B.I. director; Janet Reno, attorney general during the Clinton administration; and Griffin Bell, attorney general under Jimmy Carter.
Many opponents of mandatory minimum sentences would like to see a full repeal of the laws. ''After so many years of this, people have forgotten that we should be asking for the whole fix, not just little pieces,'' said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
But most legal, legislative and judicial experts agree that repeal, or even broad-ranging overhaul of existing laws, is unlikely. More probable is serious review of crack cocaine sentencing laws.
Currently, possessing five grams of crack brings an automatic five-year sentence. It takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to warrant the same sentence. Similarly disparate higher amounts of the drugs results in a 10-year sentence. The 100-to-1 disparity, opponents of the law say, unfairly singles out poor, largely black offenders, who are more likely than whites to be convicted of dealing crack cocaine.
At a sentencing commission hearing in November, Judge Walton, associate director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under the first President George Bush and a onetime supporter of tough crack cocaine sentences, said it would be ''unconscionable to maintain the current sentencing structure'' on crack cocaine.
Mr. Sessions is a co-sponsor of a bill that would change the ratio for the two drugs to 20 to 1, increasing the amount of crack that brings a five-year sentenceto 20 grams from 5, and lowering the powder cocaine trigger from 500 grams to 400 grams.
If judges say they are hopeful for new debate on sentencing policy, they are quick to add that they are not naive. After all, many say, even politicians who are critical of current laws fear looking soft on crime.
''Candidly, the Democrats were never particularly courageous on this issue either,'' Judge Gertner said. ''But at least now it seems judges may be encouraged to be a part of the discussion. And if asked to speak up, I think many will.''