Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘federal justice system

The Libertarian Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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As it happens, I had a chance to meet with drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and his top aides last year, as part of a series of outreach meetings as the new team planned its strategy. It doesn’t look like my advice was taken. Of course, I probably didn’t help my case by noting that our last three presidents have acknowledged using illegal drugs, and it is just incomprehensible to me how they can morally justify arresting other people for doing the same thing they did. Do they think that they would have been better off if they had been arrested and incarcerated for their youthful drug use? Do they think the country would have been better off if they had been arrested and incarcerated? If not, how do they justify punishing others?

I then suggested that they pursue the policies recommended by Timothy Lynch and myself in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers:

● repeal the Controlled Substances Act of 1970,
● repeal the federal mandatory minimum sentences and the federal sentencing guidelines,

● direct the administration not to interfere with the implementation of state initiatives that allow for the medical use of marijuana, and
● shut down the Drug Enforcement Administration.

David Boaz, executive VP, the Cato Institute.

Written by sara

May 12, 2010 at 10:42 am

Both Houses of Congress Now Considering Criminal Justice Legislation

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With the introduction of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act in the House earlier this week, both houses of Congress are now considering the legislation, which has already been making its way through the Senate. Here’s why the ACLU endorses the bill (the quote is from ACLU lobbyist Laura Murphy):

“Our badly broken justice system is in desperate need of an overhaul and the National Criminal Justice Commission Act will put a mechanism in place that can address that need. Our current criminal justice system is both unfair and unsustainable. America’s minorities have been suffering under our unbalanced criminal justice system due to unfair statutes, including our disparate crack powder sentencing guidelines. Judges are forced to use mandatory minimums as a one-size-fits-all solution to complex cases, forcing too many Americans to spend too much time behind bars.”

Of course, few people who study the criminal justice system would disagree with those statements, but is a blue-ribbon commission the best solution? Over at Sentencing Law & Policy, Doug Berman is skeptical:

I think much good could come from having a new “blue-ribbon bipartisan commission charged with undertaking an 18-month comprehensive review of the Nation’s criminal justice system,” especially if this National Criminal Justice Commission is effectively staffed and funded.  But I am fearful that the creation of a new study commission, who won’t issue recommendations until probably 2012 or beyond, could become a distraction from the critical important federal criminal justice reform work that could and should be getting done right now. [Such as, Berman suggests, eliminating the cocaine/crack federal sentencing disparity.]

Written by sara

April 28, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Help End Prison Rape, Preserve Due Process: Two Opportunities for Public Comment on Federal Prison Regulations

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If you have an extra five minutes today, here are two easy ways for you to share your opinion with the federal government and make your thoughts part of the public record. You can be sure that corrections officials and lobby groups will be seeking to influence the government on both these issues, so it’s important that ordinary citizens make their voices heard as well.

(1) Write to the DOJ urging adoption of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Standards

As I’ve noted before, the Department of Justice is currently accepting public comments on whether it should adopt the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission standards. The public comment period ends soon (May 10), so take a few minutes today to submit your comment, if you haven’t already. The proposed standards are based on best practices from prison systems that have made concrete progress in reducing sexual abuse behind bars — so their adoption nationwide could make a real difference in combating what’s become a true human rights crisis in this country. If you feel that you need more information about the scope of the problem, check out the details and links at the Just Detention International website. Then, there are a number of easy ways to submit your comment into the public record:

  • Visit www.regulations.gov, search for “Docket No. OAG-131″ as your keyword, then click “Submit a Comment.” You’ll be taken to a form where you can enter your comment as text or upload an attachment.
  • Sign this petition at Change.org, which will submit a form letter to Eric Holder on your behalf.
  • If you prefer snail mail, sample letters and addresses are available from Prison Fellowship.

(2) Write to the Bureau of Prisons about its so-called “Communications Management Units

As reported here by Politico, the Obama Administration is reviving a set of rules first proposed but later abandoned by the Bush Administration to keep terrorism-related federal prisoners in special, isolated facilities, with very extreme restrictions on their outside communications. These so-called “Communications Management Units” are actually already in use, and in a recently filed lawsuit, prisoners allege they’ve been transferred there with no notice or due process, and without any clear standards as to who qualifies for this treatment. By belatedly publishing a set of rules for the CMUs, the administration may be hoping to forestall that lawsuit’s claim that the use of CMUs was never subject to public notice and comment, as is generally required of new federal regulations. (I blogged about the lawsuit here).

Note that by definition these rules would affect not the so-called “worst of the worst” terrorism-related prisoners (who would likely be sent to the federal supermax in Colorado, if not whatever substitute for Guantanamo the administration comes up with) but rather, as Politico puts it, “prisoners who are perceived by the government or as a result of their crimes to be more likely to try to associate with terrorist networks” (my emphasis: note all the implicit “ifs”). Prisoners currently in the CMUs claim they’ve been singled out for their religious or political beliefs, or in retaliation for filing grievances against the prison system — not for legitimate safety reasons — and that they weren’t given any opportunity to view or challenge the evidence allegedly supporting their isolation.

  • If you choose to write to Eric Holder about this general issue, the Center for Constitutional Rights has some suggested language. You can also send a form letter through their website by clicking here.
  • If you want to comment specifically on the new federal regulations, you have until June 7. To submit your comment, go to www.regulations.gov and search for “BOP Docket No. 1148-P” as your keyword, then click “Submit a Comment.” Then upload your comment as text or an attachment. The Brennan Center for Justice makes some points about the proposed regs that you may want to incorporate into your comment.

The Connection between American Prisons and Mexican Drug Violence

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It gives “vicious cycle” new significance, bringing it back from the brink of meaningless cliche: Not only does the War on Drugs fuel a black market in narcotics that drives unimaginable violence and mayhem in Mexico, but the War on Drugs has also fueled the growth of American prisons, which, in turn… well, here’s a Washington Post article from the other day:

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO — A cross-border drug gang born in the prison cells of Texas has evolved into a sophisticated paramilitary killing machine that U.S. and Mexican officials suspect is responsible for thousands of assassinations here, including the recent ambush and slaying of three people linked to the U.S. consulate.

The heavily tattooed Barrio Azteca gang members have long operated across the border in El Paso, dealing drugs and stealing cars. But in Ciudad Juarez, the organization now specializes in contract killing for the Juarez drug cartel. According to U.S. law enforcement officers, it may have been involved in as many as half of the 2,660 killings in the city in the past year. …

Mexican officials say that [recently arrested Ricardos] Valles [de la Rosa], 45, was born in Juarez but grew up in El Paso, where he lived for 30 years. Nicknamed “Chino,” he was a member of the Los Fatherless street gang in El Paso. In 1995, he was convicted of distributing drugs and spent 12 years in eight U.S. federal prisons, where he met an Azteca gang leader. After his release, he was deported to Mexico and began working with the Aztecas in Juarez.

Written by sara

April 6, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Should the Rule of Lenity Apply When Construing Statutes Governing Prisons?

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The Supreme Court heard oral argument earlier this week in Barber v. Thomas (09-5201), a case about how to interpret the good-time credit statute that applies to federal prisoners. As noted in this CNN report, the justices enjoyed some chuckles at oral argument, though of course, for the 195,000 prisoners who may spend more or less time behind bars as a result of the court’s ruling, the issues are presumably no laughing matter. Rather than go through all the issues in the case, which have been covered elsewhere, I thought I’d highlight just one interesting point that came up at oral argument: Should the court apply the Rule of Lenity in construing this statute?

The Rule of Lenity is a common-law canon of construction that requires courts, when interpreting an ambiguous criminal statute, to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant, rather than the state. The question is whether this rule only applies to formally criminal statutes that define crimes and their possible punishments, or whether it should also apply in interpreting statutes and regulations that govern how prisons calculate time served, which effectively define the actual punishment imposed in any particular case. Here’s Justice Kennedy, questioning Jeffrey Wall of the Solicitor General’s office, who’s arguing on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons (where possible I’ve added links to the cases and briefs mentioned): Read the rest of this entry »

A Tale of Two Lawsuits

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The other day my Google Reader brought me news of two new lawsuits filed this week against, respectively, the federal and California state prison systems. In the first, the Center for Constitutional Rights — which has coordinated much of the legal work on behalf of Guantanamo detainees — is challenging the federal Bureau of Prisons policy of moving certain inmates into isolated cells known as “Communications Management Units,” without any advance notice or meaningful review of their transfer. These inmates face very stringent limits on their communications with their family and with the outside world, and CCR alleges that the policy is an effort to create “a stateside Guantanamo” for prisoners with unpopular political beliefs. (Two-thirds of the inmates in these special prison units are Muslim.) In the second, Crime Victims United — the California organization well-known for receiving much of its funding from the state prison guards’ union, and for its staunch support of “tough-on-crime” legislation — is suing to block enforcement of a new law that would have the effect of releasing a relatively small number of the lowest-risk offenders. Says a San Diego citizen whose son was murdered, “The victims are being ignored.”

Though filed in the same week, these two lawsuits seem on the surface to be as different as could be. Read the rest of this entry »

DOJ Plans to Buy Illinois Prison Whether or Not It’s Approved for Terror Detainees

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According to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch, the Obama Administration will move forward with plans to purchase a prison facility in rural Thomson, Ill., whether or not Congress approves the transfer of Guantanamo detainees there. The DOJ has asked for $237 million in appropriations in next year’s budget to buy and begin using the facility to hold high-security federal inmates. Rep. Don Manzullo (R – IL), who represents northern Illinois in Congress, publicly supports the new federal prison as a way of creating jobs, but has been critical of plans to transfer Guantanamo detainees there, ostensibly for safety reasons.

Here I’ll just note a few related points; make of them what you will: 1) As I noted the other day, prisons actually haven’t been found to boost local economies, or to create as many jobs as hoped; 2) I’ve never quite understood why people are so worried about bringing the remaining Guantanamo detainees into the U.S., considering that the federal supermax in Colorado already holds some pretty dangerous folks; 3) Is this the start of a federal prison mini-boom? As the Pew Center on the States reported this week, although state prison populations have fallen in over half the states, the federal prison population is growing:

The survey found that the federal prison population continued to grow, rising by 6,838 prisoners, or 3.4 percent, to an all-time high of 208,118. Expanded federal jurisdiction over certain crimes and increased prosecution of immigration cases account for much of the increase.

Texas Federal Judge Questions Illegal Re-entry Prosecutions

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I often talk to friends, family members, even law school classmates who don’t realize that “illegal re-entry” is one of the most commonly prosecuted federal crimes. It’s an easy enough crime to prosecute — you basically just have to prove the defendant (1) exists (2) in the United States (3) and has been previously deported — but it’s costly on the back end: Offenders stay in federal prison at taxpayer expense for months or even years, at the end of which they’re just going to get deported again.

So, you might ask, why not just deport them in the first place? Good question. A fed-up federal judge in Austin wants to know, too:

In an order filed Friday, a federal judge in Austin questioned U.S. prosecutors for seeking criminal convictions in court against some illegal immigrants, writing that the practice “presents a cost to the American taxpayer … that is neither meritorious nor reasonable.”

The order by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks comes as his docket, like others in Texas, is swollen with defendants charged with immigration crimes.

Most of those prosecuted in Austin have been identified by immigration officers at the Travis County Jail and charged with illegal entry after deportation.

Many of those defendants have no significant criminal history and until a change in enforcement strategy about two years ago would have been deported and not prosecuted.

Sparks entered the order in the cases against three Mexican citizens who have previously been deported and who returned to the United States without permission.

Last fall each was found in the Travis County Jail and charged with illegal re-entry.

The men all pleaded guilty and were sentenced Thursday by Sparks to the time they had already served and are being deported.

On Friday, Sparks wrote in the order that “like many of the defendants prosecuted under the (federal illegal re-entry law) in the last six months” the men “have no significant criminal history.”

Sparks wrote that it has cost more than $13,350 to jail the three men and noted that charging them criminally means additional costs and work for prosecutors, defense lawyers, court personnel and others.

“The expenses of prosecuting illegal entry and re-entry cases (rather than deportation) on aliens without any significant criminal history is simply mind-boggling,” Sparks wrote.

He said the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case could not state “a reason that these three defendants were prosecuted rather than simply removing them from the United States.”

Written by sara

February 7, 2010 at 9:46 pm

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