The Most Patriotic Thing

Here’s a gift for the holidays: James P. Gray arguing relentlessly against drug prohibition as he has for twenty-five years now. He calls it the best thing, the most patriotic thing, that he can do for his country.

If you don’t know Jim Gray, you should. He’s a former state judge from Orange County, California who used to be a Republican, now is a Libertarian, and ran for the Vice-Presidency of the United States in 2012. He’s also a national treasure. He served in the Peace Corps after college, the Navy JAG Corps after law school, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office after that. As a federal prosecutor, he handled some of the major drug cases of his day, and as a trial judge, he presided over the drug cases that flooded his courtroom. He saw the system from every perspective, and his experiences changed him.

Way before it was popular to say so, especially in Orange County, Judge Gray held a press conference to criticize the war on drugs. It was 1992, and he may have been the first sitting judge ever to do so. He risked his career and reputation in doing so, but he was right then as he is now. Most of the problems we associate with drugs, he says, are drug-prohibition problems, not drug-use problems.

“Drug prohibition is the biggest failed policy in the history of the United States, second only to slavery. And if you listen, regardless of what your interests are—I will tell you, regardless of what that is—be it education, healthcare, crime, terrorism, or the environment—I will show you to your satisfaction how it is made worse by our policy of drug prohibition.”


Reasonable Minds Can Differ

But they will usually find more to agree on.

Case in point: this short interview with the junior U.S. senator from Utah.

He’s considered one of the more conservative members of Congress, but he’s also part of a bipartisan group that’s pushing to reform our criminal justice system.

As a former federal prosecutor, he’s asked how he feels about the justice system and what’s changed for him over time.

He points to one case in particular that, presumably, he didn’t charge. The defendant was a man with two young children. He sold very small amounts of marijuana to an informant three times. He also owned a gun at the time, though he didn’t use it or brandish it during any of the sales. Based on those facts and the way he was charged, the man received a mandatory sentence of 55 years.

Even the sentencing judge openly criticized the sentence, but he wrote that his hands were tied under the law. He also said that it was a problem only Congress could fix.

The senator remembered those words when he got to Congress, and now he’s trying to do something about it.

Why is he doing this when he’s supposed to be a conservative Republican? That’s exactly why he’s doing it, he says.

Two Tears

Two true stories, that is, of people on a sex-offender registry.

The first. Today, she’s a 34-year-old mother of two great kids. Back then, she was a teenager herself when she slept with a boy on the night of her 19th birthday party. The boy was mature enough to pursue her but, as it happened, he was 14. His mom reported her to the police the next day, and they called her in to talk. They told her if she were honest, she wouldn’t go to jail, but it’s funny how that works, because after they filed the case, she was told that she could serve 20 to 25 years if she went to trial and lost. Or she could plead guilty and serve minimal time, but she would have to register as a sex offender.

Today, she’s a good person and a mother of two great kids, but her conviction looks like child molestation on paper, and she must register as a sex offender for life. Recently, she worked to become a staff writer for a local newspaper, but then someone complained about it, and the paper let her go. No one bothered with the details. You should watch her video.

The second. He was a junior in college when he went to Miami for spring break. He met a girl there at an 18-and-over club, and they ended up hooking up. Seven months later, he got a call from law enforcement in Florida. As it happened, the girl had used a fake ID to get into the club. She was actually 15 at the time, and her mom filed a complaint when she found out. So they asked the young man to come to Miami to talk, and he agreed. He told them everything was consensual, and he assumed she was 18 or older since she was in the club. They took his statement, thanked him for his cooperation, and arrested him on the spot.

Five years later, he was homeless because he couldn’t find a job or housing given his lifetime sex-offender registration. Two years ago, almost ten years after his conviction, he failed to register his whereabouts and received three years in prison. You should read his story, too.


Lifetime Sex-Offender Registration for Kids

Do you think sex-offender registration is punishment?

What if it’s for life?

What if it’s for a 12-year-old boy?

Last week, the California Court of Appeal ruled that it’s not punishment to call a kid a sex offender for life because of something he did when he was twelve years old.

According to the court, the boy’s early years were marked by extreme neglect and abuse. He was taken from his mother at age five and shunted from one foster home to another until he was adopted.

Then, when he was twelve, he was processed in juvenile court for pushing a five-year-old boy to the ground and committing a lewd act on him. He was put on probation and ordered to enroll in sex-offender treatment.

After that, he was found to have violated his probation three times: once for hanging out with other minors without adult supervision; once for touching his adoptive sister’s breast, after which he was sent to a group home; and once more for grabbing a boy’s butt there.

At that point, the court put him in juvie and ordered him to register as a sex offender. In California, that meant he would have to register as one for the rest of his life. Wherever he moved, he would have to register with the city police or the county sheriff. If he went to college, he would have to register there, too. Even if he never moved, he would have to register again every year within five days of his birthday.

He appealed on the ground that lifetime registration for kids was cruel and unusual punishment. He also argued that it hindered public safety rather than helped it because it hurt a kid’s chance to live a normal life. Even the juvenile court had acknowledged that it “mess[ed] up the rest of their lives by hanging this tag on them.” Of course, the same could be said for adults, as we’ve explained before.

But the appellate court held that it wasn’t even punishment, let alone cruel and unusual punishment. The court relied on prior cases by the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court to that effect. Although those cases didn’t address the question of kids specifically, this court wasn’t going to be the first to carve out an exception for them.

[Update: Beginning January 1, 2021, California will eliminate lifetime registration for many offenses, as we explain here.]

No Correlation Between Drug War and Use

According to an independent, well-regarded think tank, there is statistically no reason to think that we can reduce drug abuse by locking more people up.

The nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts spelled it out in a letter this summer to a federal commission that’s looking at ways to combat the widespread problem of opioid abuse.

Its study, which drew on data from the federal government and all fifty states, found no statistically-significant relationship between a state’s rate of incarceration and its rate of drug use, drug arrests, or overdose deaths.

Put another way, locking up more people didn’t correlate with lower rates of drug use, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. These findings held even when the study controlled for race, income, unemployment, and education. The arrest and incarceration rates came from state corrections departments and the U.S. Justice Department. The drug-usage rates came from an annual, national survey funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The overdose-death rates came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The demographic data came from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the income and unemployment data came from the U.S. Labor Department.

The more effective response to opioid abuse, says the letter, is a combination of law enforcement to curb drug trafficking; sentencing alternatives to divert nonviolent people from costly imprisonment; treatment to reduce addiction; and prevention efforts like prescription-drug monitoring programs, which we wrote about last week.

The Restoration of Rights Project

Have you ever been arrested? Do you have a prior conviction?

Do you wonder whether you can clean up your record and how that affects you, if at all?

Start here. It’s called the Restoration of Rights Project, and it looks at the law in every state for restoring your rights and status after an arrest or conviction. It covers federal law, too.

For each state, the Project compiles answers to these questions:

  1. Whether and how you can seal, expunge, or dismiss your arrest or conviction.
  2. Whether and how you can restore your civil rights, like the right to vote.
  3. Whether and how your state’s laws affect your chance of landing a job or license, losing one, or getting it back.
  4. Whether your state has a regular process to apply for a pardon and how often it grants one.
  5. Whether and how you can stop having to register as a sex offender.

It’s a great resource not just for lawyers and the courts but for, in its words, “the millions of Americans with a criminal record who are seeking to put their past behind them.”

The Modern Public Square

This week brought us another unanimous U.S. Supreme Court case that’s arguably more important because it concerned the First Amendment.

The issue was a North Carolina law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to use any social-networking site that lets minors join. So to be clear, that’s any social-media site, period, that lets minors join. That meant Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or pretty much any other social-media site. The law was even broad enough to include websites like Amazon, WebMD, and the Washington Post. So you almost couldn’t use the Internet.

The defendant was one of more than 1,000 people who’ve been prosecuted under the law. In 2002, when he was 21 years old, he had sex with a 13-year-old girl, and he was charged with it. He pleaded guilty to it and registered as a sex offender. Then the law passed in 2008.

In 2010, he happened to get a traffic ticket dismissed in court, whereupon he logged on to Facebook and posted this to his timeline: “Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court cost, no nothing spent … Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!”

He was indicted for that.

He moved to dismiss on the ground that the law violated the First Amendment, but the trial court denied it. He was convicted at trial and given a suspended prison sentence.

On appeal, the state courts duked it out. The court of appeals agreed with the guy, finding that the law violated the First Amendment. But the state supreme court reversed, finding the law “constitutional in all respects.”

Finally, the federal high court unanimously struck down the law because it plainly applied to websites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter among others. Facebook itself had 1.79 billion active users—or three times the population of North America.

The Court called these sites “integral to the fabric of our modern society and culture.” They had become our main sources for sharing current events, participating in the public square, and exploring human thought and knowledge. To foreclose access to them was to foreclose the legitimate exercise of First-Amendment rights.

Yes, a state could pass specific, narrowly-tailored laws that regulate the type of conduct that portends crime, like contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about one.

But it couldn’t just cut people off from the public square.

Judge Not, Lest We Be Judged

If you’re still not sold on the power of redemption, I may not be able to sway you.

But consider this guy. He committed a carjacking at 16 and spent eight years in prison for it. Today, at 35, he has a wife, two bouncy sons, and now, a law degree from Yale. He just graduated last month. I guess it’s good we didn’t throw away the key.

His story reminded me of three quotes I saw recently. They each spoke to why we should treat people humanely in our justice system. I saw them in the email signature of a defense lawyer in Texas, and while he and I have never met, I think they say something positive about him, too. If you need a lawyer in his neck of the woods, look him up.

I especially liked how the quotes were attributed to three very different people. An itinerant lawyer and activist. An influential computer scientist. An acclaimed writer and novelist.

Three different walks of life, but they seemed to agree on some things.

  1. Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.”
  2. “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
  3. “Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes the choices make you.”

Great quotes, all. You live and breathe long enough, you know them to be true.

A Model Penal Code for the 21st Century

Charging decisions, which we wrote about last week, matter for many reasons. They drive plea bargains, and they affect sentencing. You file a felony, for example, so that the guy will plead to a misdemeanor without giving you much trouble. It happens all the time.

Bad charging decisions, though, don’t just cause wrongful convictions or unjust sentences.

They cause other consequences that continue to torment you after you’ve served your sentence. Your actual sentence may include your jail or prison time, the fines you must pay, or the terms of probation you must follow. You did the crime so you should do the time and pay the fine, right? Okay, but then even after you do, you still may not be able to cast a vote, land a job, rent a home, hold a license, or get a loan. These are the so-called collateral consequences of a conviction.

But the future may be brighter.

Last week, the American Law Institute approved major changes to the Model Penal Code to address these consequences. The ALI is the leading scholarly body that aims to clarify, modernize, and otherwise improve American law. The Model Penal Code is its seminal work in the area of criminal law. It doesn’t have the force of law by itself, but it’s influential. Most states have used it in passing their own laws, and courts cite to it often.

The new provisions would require you to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that a collateral consequence of your conviction imposes a heavy burden on your ability to rejoin society and that public safety doesn’t need you to suffer it.

If you do that then a court could relieve you from that burden. A court could even issue a certificate of rehabilitation that shields employers, landlords, or others who give you a second chance from civil liability.

Already, state legislatures have been proposing and passing laws to give people a fair shake to prove themselves before dismissing them based on the past.

Hopefully, that momentum keeps building. We should consider what it means to have a record, anyway, when most people either have one, know someone close to them who does, or would have one but for the grace of God. And we should consider how we judge people altogether in a world in which our every action can leave a permanent trace.

The twenty-first century may demand it.

The New DOJ Policy on Charging Decisions

Two weeks ago, the new U.S. Attorney General announced a new policy for charging and sentencing in criminal cases. Although the policy targets drug cases in particular, it applies to all federal prosecutions.

You can break it down into three parts.

First, prosecutors should file the “most serious, readily-provable” charges in each case. The most serious charges are those that carry the stiffest sentence, including any mandatory-minimum sentence. To deviate from this policy, prosecutors must get approval from a supervisor, document their reasons for it, and be able to point to “unusual facts.”

Second, in most cases, prosecutors should seek a standard sentence under federal sentencing guidelines. If they want to deviate from the guideline sentence, they must get supervisory approval and document their reasons in the file.

Third, prosecutors should discard inconsistent policies of the prior administration. Under prior policy, prosecutors still charged the most serious offense that was consistent with a defendant’s conduct and likely to yield a solid conviction. But they were also encouraged to evaluate cases individually to decide which charges to file, and they were told to seek sentences that were fair and proportional under all the circumstances.

In particular, prosecutors now must ignore two prior policies that tried to reduce harsh sentences in low-level, nonviolent drug cases. Under one policy, they were not to charge a specific drug quantity if it triggered a mandatory-minimum sentence, and they were to avoid charging prior drug convictions that doubled the minimum sentence or put someone in prison for life. We wrote about this before here. Under the other policy, they could not threaten to charge such priors just to force you to plead guilty. I guess that’s fair game now.

The new policy has sparked criticism across the spectrum. Lawmakers from both parties have railed against it. One former U.S. Attorney decried its “stunning lack of faith” in line prosecutors. A coalition of state and local prosecutors has published an open letter against it. And the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had this reaction:

“This Attorney General has taken away the discretion of professional prosecutors to determine what sentence serves justice in any given case. Instead, prosecutors are now required in every case mindlessly to seek the maximum possible penalty…. This policy will lock up non-violent offenders with little or no criminal history, waste untold millions of dollars, devastate families and whole communities, and yet not make us any safer.”

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