US ATTORNEY GENERAL ANNOUNCES FEWER MANDATORY MINIMUMS SOUGHT FOR DRUG CRIMES
In August 2013, US Attorney General instructed federal prosecutors to stop seeking mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, as part of a new “Smart on Crime” initiative. On Tuesday, he reported on the results of his push for fewer outsized sentences for these non-violent drug crimes.
According to Holder, in the year after Holder announced the new initiative, there were almost 1,400 fewer federal drug trafficking cases, a decrease of 6% over the previous year. And prosecutors sought mandatory minimum sentences in half of low-level drug cases, down from two-thirds of such cases.
Here’s a clip from the announcement on the Attorney General’s website:
The figures announced Tuesday were compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission at the request of the Justice Department to measure the impact of several reforms implemented in 2013 through Attorney General Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative. Those reforms—aimed at restoring fairness to the criminal justice system and at confronting the problem of America’s overcrowded prison system—instructed federal prosecutors to exercise greater discretion in selecting drug cases to bring to federal court. The data suggests prosecutors heeded that call, as the overall number of federal drug trafficking cases dropped by six percent in FY2014.
While the sheer number of drug cases went down, the data also showed that federal prosecutors have prioritized more serious cases. Holder pointed to a rise in the average guideline minimum sentence, from 96 months in FY2013 to 98 months this past year. That suggests the severity of offenses prosecuted in FY2014 was slightly higher.
Most important of all, Holder said, was the trend observed with respect to mandatory minimums. After several years in a row that saw federal prosecutors pursue such mandatory sentences in roughly two-thirds of drug cases, last year’s rate dropped to one-in-two. The Attorney General said this showed that the department was succeeding in reserving these strict sentences for the worst types of offenders rather than imposing indiscriminately.
“This figure, perhaps more than any other, shows the significant impact that our policy reforms are having,” said Attorney General Holder. “These are extremely encouraging results.”
Advocates say these steps forward are great, but much more can be done. There are still tons of federal prisoners serving preposterously long sentences for drug offenses. Weldon Angelos, for instance, is serving a 55 year sentence for selling weed while carrying a firearm. (Weldon is the face of the Koch brothers’ criminal justice reform campaign. We pointed to the campaign, and Weldon, here.)
In a dramatic contrast to Weldon’s case, back in California, Governor Brown is reviewing a controversial parole board decision to release a former Mexican Mafia leader (turned informant) serving a life sentence for two murders.
THE RUSH TO HELP PROP 47-ERS IN CALIFORNIA COUNTIES
Jill Jenkins is a paralegal at the Alameda County Defender’s Office. She works in an office that has worked its way through nearly everyone seeking to reduce their convictions through Proposition 47, which lowered certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors. But Jenkin’s connection to the important new law runs deeper than her job. Jenkins herself, is a former felon who had her conviction commuted to a misdemeanor by Prop. 47, and her criminal record expunged.
But not all Prop 47-ers will share Jenkins’ good fortune. It is critical that those still serving time for their felony convictions have a place to live, and are connected with other resources to help them reenter their communities, upon their release.
Not all counties have been able to move as quickly as Alameda, either, and are struggling under the towering workload and the law’s three-year deadline.
The San Jose Mercury’s Malaika Fraley has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:
The difficulties that people with felony convictions face are profound, said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice and co-author of Proposition 47. They have a difficult time getting jobs, promotions, federal student loans, certain housing and public assistance, teaching credentials, and more.
Because the maximum punishments for misdemeanors are much lower than for felonies, many offenders were released from jail or prison once their offenses were reclassified under the new law.
Counties like Los Angeles and Orange still have a long way to go to reduce convictions for all of their Proposition 47-eligible offenders who are currently incarcerated, Anderson said. But defense attorneys in the Bay Area hit the ground running the week it became law and are largely done addressing that population.
In an Oakland courtroom last fall, inmates were doing arm pumps and flashing big smiles at the news that they were being released. Social workers rushed to their side to hand out referrals for community-based organizations offering emergency shelter, mental health services, rehab programs and job training to help with the transition.
“They were thrilled because a lot of people didn’t even know why they were coming in to court,” said Sascha Atkins-Loria, one of a team of social workers deployed by Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods to help Proposition 47 clients.
“Eighty percent seemed overjoyed because they didn’t know they were getting out,” Atkins-Loria said. “Another 20 percent seemed like they didn’t know where they were going to stay tonight.”
Legislative analysts say that lowering the prison population through Prop 47, and thus eliminating some of the costly use of out-of-state private prisons, could save California $20 million. The analysts said, however, that their estimate may be off without the usual four-year prison population estimates from Governor Jerry Brown. The governor, in turn, says that it will be difficult to predict prison population numbers without knowing the long-term Prop 47 effects.
The LA Times’ Paige St. John has the story. Here’s a small clip:
Coupled with a $36-million project to expand three existing prisons, the analysts say California could potentially reduce its use of private overflow prisons and save $20 million “under almost any scenario.”
However, the report notes, the assumption is uncertain and lawmakers should demand a more detailed accounting from Brown’s administration. Without long-term projections, the report states, “it is impossible for the Legislature to make an informed decision” on prison spending.
Another important question, aside from how much money Prop 47 will save, is how those extra dollars will be used.
State money saved by Prop 47 will be be split three ways. Sixty-five percent will go to mental health and drug rehab programs for criminal justice system-involved people, 25% will fund efforts to reduce truancy and help at-risk students, and 10% will be spent on establishing trauma recovery centers for crime victims.
But Prop 47 does not tell counties what to do with the money they save (the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice estimated LA could save $100 million to $175 million per year).
Here’s what Californians for Safety and Justice (the group behind Prop 47) has to say about the Prop 47 money and where it will be invested:
When is the money available?
State savings will be available in 2016, whereas county savings are already being realized.
The state savings from Prop. 47 come from fewer people being sent to state prison. To determine those amounts, the state will calculate how many fewer people are sent to state prison each year because of the felonies reduced by Prop. 47…
Who decides where the state savings go?
Savings from reduced incarceration within state prisons will be distributed by a grant process run by three different state agencies:
The Board of State of Community Corrections will evaluate grant proposals and distribute 65% of the funds for mental health and drug treatment; the Department of Education will distribute 25% for programs in K-12 schools focused on at-risk students; and the California Victim Compensation Program will distribute 10% for trauma recovery services for crime victims.
Savings achieved from reduced incarceration within county jails are not distributed by Prop. 47 but rather by local government bodies. Local advocates may advocate for those savings to be reallocated to crime-prevention strategies and programs that best serve the needs of that particular community.
Can the money go to law enforcement or jails?
The savings from Prop. 47 are intended to go to programs that prevent crime, reduce recidivism and aid crime victims. Any public agency may apply.
The law is focused on investing savings in prevention approaches that reduce the cycle of crime for people (especially those with drug or mental health problems) at risk of committing misdemeanors addressed in Prop. 47.
REVERSING HARMFUL ANTI-HOMELESS RULES IN CALIFORNIA
Fifty-eight cities in California have together authorized hundreds of ordinances that target homeless people, criminalizing things like sitting, sleeping, standing, and food-sharing, according to a report expected to be released this week by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley. The report predicts another 100 city rules against homelessness within the next ten years. In 2013, more than 7,000 homeless Californians were arrested for vagrancy-related offenses.
In an op-ed for the LA Times, the Western Regional Advocacy Project’s Paul Boden, and UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic director, Jeffrey Selbin, point to a “crucial” Right to Rest bill (part of a three-bill package called the Homeless Bill of Rights) being pushed by advocates that would begin to undo some of the anti-homeless rules plaguing California cities. Here’s how it opens:
Anti-Okie laws. Sundown towns. Ugly laws.
These old vagrancy laws recall shameful periods in our history when communities selectively persecuted and punished migrants, people of color and the physically disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s anti-Okie law, which made it a crime to bring anyone indigent into the state, in 1941. In a 1972 case from Jacksonville, Fla., the Supreme Court invalidated a local vagrancy ordinance because it encouraged arbitrary arrests, criminalized innocent activities and placed unfettered discretion in the hands of the police.
But those rulings weren’t the end of vagrancy laws. In their latest iteration, they target homeless people. After homelessness began skyrocketing in the 1980s, cities responded with laws that criminalize basic life activities conducted in public like standing, sitting, resting or sleeping, and even sharing food with homeless people. As the crisis worsened in California — 22% of America’s homeless population now lives in the state — cities have piled on more and more vagrancy laws…
Although arrests are only the tip of the enforcement iceberg, more than 7,000 Californians were picked up for vagrancy in 2013 according to police agency reports to the FBI. Vagrancy arrests increased 77% in California from 2000 to 2012, while arrests for “drunkenness” and “disorderly conduct” declined by 16% and 48% respectively. In other words, vagrancy laws increasingly are being used to punish people’s status — being homeless — rather than their behavior.
HIGH RATE OF SEX OFFENDER DEATHS IN CALIFORNIA PRISONS
An investigation by the AP’s Don Thompson revealed that since 2007, male sex offenders comprised 30% of inmate deaths in California prisons, while only making up 15% of the total prison population. Thompson’s investigation also found the mortality rate of California inmates to be twice as high as the national average.
According to jails expert James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, those numbers will not go down until the state lowers its prison population much further than the 137.5% of capacity mandated by a panel of three federal judges.
Here’s a clip from Thompson’s story:
The deaths — 23 out of 78 — come despite the state’s creation more than a decade ago of special housing units designed to protect the most vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, often marked men behind bars because of the nature of their crimes.
In some cases, they have been killed among the general prison population and, in others, within the special units by violence-prone cellmates. Officials acknowledge that those units, which also house inmates trying to quit gangs, have spawned their own gangs.
Corrections officials have blamed a rise in the prison homicide rate on an overhaul meant to reduce crowding. As part of the effort, the state in 2011 began keeping lower-level offenders in county lockups, leaving prisons with a higher percentage of sex offenders and violent gang members.
Violence and homicides won’t decline unless the state goes well below the prison population level set by the courts — 137.5 percent of the system’s designed capacity, said James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that works on prison issues.
“Until the state gets its prison population below 100 percent of capacity, you’re going to have this,” he said.
Overall, 162 California prisoners were killed from 2001 to 2012, or 8 per 100,000 prisoners — double the national average over the same time period and far higher than that of other large states, including Texas, New York and Illinois, according to federal statistics.