Our Federal Prisons Are Fueled By Drugs

That’s the takeaway from this report by the federal courts and U.S. Sentencing Commission.

To summarize, there are almost 200,000 people in federal prison today, and almost half of them (or 48%) are there for drugs. Almost all of them (93%) are men, and the vast majority are young, minority men. The breakdown is 35% Hispanic, 35% black, and 27% white.

Here are the top five types of cases:

  1. Drugs (48%)
  2. Guns (19%)
  3. Immigration (8%)
  4. Child pornography and sex offenses (7%)
  5. Major frauds (5.8%)

For fraud cases, the median dollar loss was $800,000, in case you were wondering.

For the drug cases, here’s the breakdown among drugs:

  1. Methamphetamine (32.8%)
  2. Powder cocaine (24.2%)
  3. Crack cocaine (20.9%)
  4. Heroin (9.5%)
  5. Marijuana (8.4%)

Finally, the report shows how often people are sentenced below, above, or within the range that’s recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines. Here’s a crash course on the guidelines if you want to know how they work.

  • Half were sentenced within the guideline range (50.4%)
  • A quarter were sentenced below the range with the government’s support (24.7%)
  • One-fifth were sentenced below the range without the government’s support (21%)
  • Relatively few were sentenced above the guideline range (3.9%)

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.”

White-Collar to Blue-Collar in One Day

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two notable decisions on the same day.

One was a civil white-collar case, the other a criminal drug-trafficking case, and in both cases, the Court reversed the lower-court ruling on appeal.

In the civil case, the Court imposed a five-year statute of limitations on SEC cases that seek to disgorge profits. That’s the same period that applies in cases to enforce a fine, penalty, or forfeiture. Although disgorgement of profits is traditionally a form of restitution that’s measured by a defendant’s wrongful gain, the Court ruled that it’s a penalty in SEC cases for a couple reasons. First, the agency uses it to deter and punish defendants as much as to compensate victims. Sometimes, the money goes to Uncle Sam, and sometimes, the only victim is the public at large. Second, the agency often disgorges more than defendants have gained, leaving them worse off than before they broke the law. That may be the point, but that makes it a penalty.

In a footnote, the Court even seemed to call into question whether courts could order disgorgement at all. That’s something they’ve been doing since the 1970s, so it’s a big deal. For more in-depth analysis of this decision, see here.

In the criminal case, the Court reined in the government’s forfeiture power. Forfeiture allows the government to seize money or property that’s derived from a crime. But the law limits this to what someone actually and personally receives or obtains. That means you can’t be responsible for amounts obtained by someone else. So the hypothetical college student who gets $500 per month to drop off a few packages isn’t on the hook for the whole multimillion-dollar drug enterprise.

Here, two brothers worked in a hardware store together. One of them owned the store, and the other was a salaried employee. The two were charged with selling large amounts of a product they knew or had reason to know was being used to make meth. In three years, the store grossed about $400,000 from selling the stuff and netted $270,000.

The government wanted the $270,000 in profits. The owner agreed to forfeit $200,000 of it when he pleaded guilty, but the employee went to trial. He was acquitted of three counts, convicted of eleven, and sentenced to sixty months in prison. Then the government went after him for the remaining $70,000.

Although the government agreed that the employee had no ownership interest in the store and didn’t personally benefit from the illicit sales, it argued that, in a conspiracy, everyone is responsible for the full proceeds of the conspiracy. And it won that argument on appeal.

But the Supreme Court rejected that and reversed.

 

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.”

The Right of Refusal in California DUI Cases

If you’re arrested for driving under the influence, and you’re asked to submit to a breath or blood test, remember that you still have a third choice.

You can refuse to submit to such testing and face the consequences. What are those?

  • You may lose your license for one-to-three years depending on your driving history;
  • You’ll have to pay a fine;
  • You’ll serve mandatory jail time if you’re convicted; and
  • Your refusal can be used against you at trial as evidence of your guilt.

You may not like your options, but you’ve still got a right to refuse, and if a police officer wants to deprive you of that right, he or she must get a warrant.

Take this recent case, for example. A woman was stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence. The police officer asked her to blow into a breathalyzer, saying it was optional (which is true). She declined. He then arrested her and asked her to choose between a breath and blood test. He told her that she was required to choose one or the other, but he didn’t explain the consequences of refusing like he was supposed to. That made it seem like she couldn’t refuse (which isn’t true). So she chose the blood test. After she got charged, she moved to suppress the results on the ground that her consent wasn’t free and voluntary because the officer made it seem like she couldn’t refuse. But the trial court denied it.

On appeal, the court ruled that the trial court should have suppressed the test results. Because the officer didn’t have a warrant, the search and seizure was illegal unless it was based on an exception to the warrant requirement (like consent). In this case, however, the woman’s consent wasn’t free and voluntary because the officer didn’t correctly explain the law. He told her that she had to take a test under California’s implied-consent law (which is true). But he didn’t advise her of the consequences for refusing. That made it seem like she couldn’t say no, which meant there was no actual consent.

As the court explained, it’s no different than if the police came to your home and claimed to have a warrant but then argued that you consented to their search by opening your door. That’s not a valid consent because you had no right to resist their authority, anyway. So if it turns out they didn’t actually have a warrant then their whole search would be illegal, and they couldn’t rescue their case by relying on your consent.

When It Rains, It Pours

Here’s another case that blurs the line between civil and criminal laws.

It started as a civil dispute between a homeowner and contractor. The homeowner hired the contractor to paint her house and install ten windows. Six months later, he had painted her house and installed eight-and-a-half windows, but no one was happy. He wanted $8,000 more to finish the work, but she’d already paid him $61,000 and refused to pay more.

The contractor sued for the $8,000 balance, but he had a problem: apparently, he didn’t actually have a contractor’s license. Or he couldn’t produce a valid one, anyway.

He may not have realized that, in California, an unlicensed contractor can’t sue for a breach of contract no matter how good a job he may have done. Not only that but he can be sued for every penny that he was paid even if he did great work. Which is what happened here. The homeowner lawyered up and countersued for the $61,000 that she had paid him.

Then his luck got worse.

Because he couldn’t produce a contractor’s license, he was charged criminally with six misdemeanor counts of contracting without a license. Yes, it’s a crime, too. He pleaded no contest to one count, and the other six were dismissed. He was put on probation and ordered to pay restitution as part of it.

At the restitution hearing, the government demanded that he pay back the entire $61,000 that the homeowner had paid him plus her attorneys’ fees. He testified that he did the work right and that she owed him $8,000. She testified that he didn’t do it right because some of the paint had faded, chipped, bubbled, and peeled in the three years since. He argued that any damage was due to natural weathering because the house was so close to the ocean, and he called an expert who testified to that.

The trial court sided with the contractor, but on appeal, he was ordered to pay back everything, including her attorneys’ fees.

Why?  The law was clear that he didn’t have a right to the money no matter how well he performed, so legally, she never should’ve had to pay for his work in the first place.

Wasn’t this a criminal case, not a civil one? Yes, but the civil rule applied to criminal restitution.

Wasn’t this an unfair windfall for the homeowner? Perhaps.

But that’s the way the cookie crumbled.

The Lowdown on California’s Proposition 57

Last week it was Proposition 64; this week, it’s Prop 57.

Voters approved it by a wide margin, but what does it do?

Two things.

First, it amended the California Constitution to ensure parole eligibility for people who have been convicted of a nonviolent felony, once they have served the full term for their primary offense. In layman’s terms, that means that you’re eligible for parole once you’ve served the meat and potatoes of your sentence, even if you were sentenced to additional, consecutive time on lesser counts or for sentencing enhancements. But this just means you’re eligible; it doesn’t mean you get released. It just means you’ve got a shot at parole, and something to work toward. No one is automatically released, and no one is entitled to parole.

Second, Prop 57 mandates that a judge must always decide whether a minor age 14 or older should be prosecuted and sentenced in adult court. (Kids 13 and younger don’t go to adult court.) Before, you automatically went to adult court, even at 14, if you were charged with murder or an aggravated sex crime. Or the prosecutor could file your case directly in adult court if you were 16 or 17 and charged with a serious or violent felony or you were 14 or 15 and charged with an especially serious or violent felony. In all cases, the prosecutor could request the juvenile court to transfer your case to adult court, even for a misdemeanor.

Under Prop 57, there’s no direct filing of juvenile cases in adult court, and prosecutors have less discretion to request their transfer. For ages 14 or 15, they may request a transfer only if the kid is charged with a serious or violent felony. For ages 16 or 17, it can be any felony but not a misdemeanor.

Some things haven’t changed, like the criteria for deciding whether a minor’s case should be transferred to adult court. These include the following:

  • the nature and seriousness of the charges
  • the degree of criminal sophistication he displayed, given his age, maturity, intelligence, environment, and upbringing
  • his prior history of delinquency, if any
  • whether he can be rehabilitated by the time he comes of age or close to it

If Prison Walls Could Talk

Here’s an interesting story about a just-released report on prison reform, with a kick: it’s written by the prisoners.

The authors are five inmates, all first-time offenders, who have spent a combined 95 years in the Texas prison system.

They write from their own experiences and those of others, but many of their observations apply across the country. They write about food, medicine, discipline, parole, programming, solitary confinement, and other things. And they write well.

Here are six examples to give you a flavor. Even if we don’t adopt every suggestion, doesn’t it make sense to listen?

The intake process. It ought to help steer people toward reform and rehabilitation, but it doesn’t. Instead, it degrades them and strips them of their dignity. Sometimes, new arrivals are greeted with words like, “Welcome to hell,” and then treated accordingly. Staff may yell obscenities in their ear throughout the process, among other things. This routine demands submission but discourages rehabilitation. It isn’t necessary and doesn’t comport with the state’s mission statement.

The commissary. Stock it appropriately to reduce the black market for goods that inmates otherwise steal from the kitchen or laundry at taxpayers’ expense. Stock it with healthier foods, including fruits and vegetables, and inmates will eat them. Don’t worry about their making wine out of the fruit because they’re making the wine, anyway. “[They] make wine without fruit by using fruit juice, mint sticks, raisins stolen from the kitchen, and other black-market items procured in prison. Trying to eliminate the exceptional activities of a few by prohibiting healthy items for all serves no purpose. The wine is still being made!”

Computers and technology. Expand inmates’ access to it. You can monitor and regulate their use, but keeping them from it only impedes their successful reentry into society. “When an inmate is released, they should be familiar with the technology they are expected to interact with on a daily basis.”

Visitation. Expand visiting hours and improve the experience. Don’t make it more difficult or unpleasant for people. Nurture the bonds that inmates have with their loved ones. Don’t fleece them with surcharges on phone calls and emails.

Differences among staff. Bad officers create hostile work environments for other officers and foster bad behavior among the inmates. Good officers try to treat inmates with respect and make the prison safer for staff and inmates alike. They view inmates as people who are worthy of respect and who will one day rejoin society.

Reward good behavior. Don’t just punish bad behavior. “Giving inmates the ability to set themselves apart … would give an inmate a reason to care about his future; it would give him hope that his future can be different; and giving inmates hope about a better future will change the culture of the prison system.”

 

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