The Sentencing Project News
December 2, 2013 (The Daily Review)
Alternative sentencing could be win-win situation
The United States is the world's largest jailer, with more than 2.2 million people behind bars.
There is no doubt that is the correct location for many of them but, as noted by The Sentencing Project, the 500 percent increase in the prison population over the last 40 years is due more to changes in sentencing laws and policies than to crime rates, which generally have fallen over the same period.
In recent years the climbing cost to the public of mass incarceration has spurred an examination of the system.
Pennsylvania has been a leader, canceling several new prisons that had been planned and turning to alternative sentencing and specialized courts, and public safety has not suffered.
Two new studies demonstrate how further progress can be achieved.
December 2, 2013 (C-Span)
Reforming Prison Sentencing
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, talked about the changing political climate for criminal justice reform on C-Span and why he believes the expanding growth and cost of the U.S. prison system has contributed to an increased desire for reform. He also spoke about the findings of his organization on the rapid growth of life sentencing and the impact of the federal drug ban on welfare families. Watch here.
December 2, 2013 (The New York Times)
Sunday Dialogue: Using the Power to Pardon
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, writes: “Professor Levinson issues an eloquent call to President Obama to use his pardon power. We can only speculate about why he’s been reluctant to do so, but for me, political calculation is the only plausible explanation. If so, this seems misguided.
“We’re well past the “tough on crime” days of the 1980s and ’90s, when Democrats and Republicans tried to outdo one another in promoting harsh crime policies. There’s now broad bipartisan support for treatment for drug offenders, re-entry services for people returning home from prison, and even measures to scale back the severity of mandatory sentencing laws. Witness the positive response to Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech this summer decrying the fact that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long.” Hardly a word of dissent, clearly an indication that the political climate on these issues has shifted in a more compassionate direction.
November 26, 2013 (Opposingviews.com)
Virginia’s Sentencing Laws Gave Six Life Terms to 15-Year-Old For Armed Robbery
Travion Blount of Norfolk, Va., is serving what some are calling the harshest sentence yet for a juvenile who did not commit murder: six life sentences.
Blount, now 23, was 15 at the time that he and two 18-year-olds committed armed robbery at a house party. One of the 18-year-olds struck someone with the butt of the gun, but no shots were fired, according to the ACLU Center for Justice.
The two 18-year-olds pleaded guilty and accepted prison sentences of 10 and 13 years. Blount decided to go to trial instead, turning down the prosecution’s offer of 18 years in prison.
At the trial, Blount was found guilty of 24 firearm counts and sentenced to 118 years in prison without the possibility of parole. His only chance of leaving prison is through geriatric release at age 60, an unlikely possibility.
Blount’s case has raised doubts about the effectiveness of Virginia’s harsh juvenile sentencing laws. In the Virginian-Pilot’s coverage of the case, the newspaper reported that Virginia is one of 11 states that impose life sentences without parole on juveniles for nonhomicide convictions. Virginia abolished parole in 1995.
November 21, 2013 (Colorlines.com)
Congressman’s Cocaine Bust Illuminates Race and Gender Sentencing Disparities
Freshman Florida Congressman Trey Radel pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and was sentenced to one year of probation after buying 3.5 grams of cocaine from an undercover agent in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. To put that in perspective, when former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for smoking a “little speck” of crack cocaine that was not in his personal possession back in 1990, he was sentenced to six months in a federal prison. That about sums up the racial disparity crisis between cocaine and crack possession sentencing in our nation, which despite recent reforms, still allows white men leniency in the courts compared to African-Americans.
Rep. Radel was known as the hip-hop lovin’ politician who loved to Tweet, but his record in Congress firmly reflected the extreme conservative agenda of the Tea Party. Despite his co-sponsoring of a bill to reform mandatory minimum sentencing — from which he would benefit had he been arrested with that legislation in place — he also voted for a farm bill amendment that would allow states to drug test all food stamp recipients.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pointed out the irony of Radel’s arrest given his support of that amendment. “It’s really interesting it came on the heels of Republicans voting on everyone who had access to food stamps get drug tested. It’s like, what?” said Pelosi.
November 21, 2013 (The Seattle Times)
King County Council puts race on the table for examination
Columnist Jerry Large writes that “the Metropolitan King County Council went on a field trip Monday to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle where Bryce Siedl, the center’s CEO, led council members and other officials on a brief tour of the exhibit, ‘RACE: Are We So Different?’.
“In October, the county released its second Equity and Social Justice annual report, which captured in numbers wide gaps in health, wealth and school-graduation rates that correlate with race or with geographic patterns that reflect racial segregation.
“The report said: ‘The 10 ZIP codes with the highest diversity have more than 7 in 10 people of color’ while the 10 ZIP codes with the lowest diversity have, on average, fewer than 1 of every 10. There are strong connections between place, race, health and income.
“Government — and the public whose support it requires — needs to understand the role race plays in creating or sustaining inequalities in order to improve the prospects for more residents.
November 21, 2013 (Opposingviews.com)
More Than 180,000 Women Had SNAP Benefits Cut Under Obscure 1996 Drug War Rule
Those who are eligible for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) can still collect their benefits if they’ve killed or raped someone, but if they have a drug felony on their record, the government will cut them off.
November 21, 2013 (Congressional Quarterly)
Feinstein Wary of Proposals to Reduce Prison Sentences
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said Wednesday that she is conflicted about legislation to scale back mandatory minimum sentencing laws, signaling that lawmakers in both parties are wary of the effort ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee markup in December.
Feinstein, the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, said in an interview that she is “not comfortable” with legislation that would reduce criminal penalties for some offenders, even though Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has strongly urged the panel to act on the issue.
“We’ve been wrestling with it,” Feinstein said. “For me right now, it’s not an easy question.”
The Judiciary Committee is expected to meet after the Thanksgiving recess to mark up four bills related to the federal prison system, including two that would effectively reduce criminal sentences and two that would allow some prisoners to earn earlier releases if they participate in rehabilitation programs. All four bills are aimed at curbing the rapid growth in the number of federal inmates.
One of the sentencing bills (S 619), sponsored by Leahy and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would greatly expand judges’ discretion to impose criminal penalties below the mandatory minimum sentences that are set out in statute. The other (S 1410), sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, is narrower, but would reduce the statutory minimum penalties for some drug crimes, among other steps.
November 20, 2013 (The Sentencing Project)
New Publication: Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America
While serious crime rates in the U.S. have been declining for the last 20 years, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984. As documented in our new report, over 159,000 people were serving life sentences in 2012, with nearly 50,000 serving life without parole.
November 20, 2013 (The Sentencing Project)
New Publication: A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Federal Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits
A new report by The Sentencing Project finds that the nation’s “war on drugs” posture of recent decades may have a devastating impact on the health and safety of women and children of color and their communities.
The report, A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Federal Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits, concludes that a provision of the 1996 welfare reform legislation passed by Congress subjects an estimated 180,000 women in the 12 most impacted states to a lifetime ban on welfare benefits.