President Obama takes tentative steps toward Sentencing Reform

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In a tentative step toward federal sentencing reform  President Obama reduced the sentences of eight prisoners serving long federal prison sentences — six of them life sentences — under draconian laws for crack-cocaine sentencing. He also pardoned 13 others, at least six of whom were in prison for drug offenses.

This administration has been reluctant to use the pardoning power of the president to effect prison sentencing reform. In this instance, the President noted that some prisoners effected by his pardon would have been released under new federal laws enacted over the past two years.

. “Prior to Thursday’s announcement, he had commuted only one sentence during his tenure, out of 8,700 commutation applications” according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. His rate of both pardons and commutations was the lowest of any president in modern history.

The administration argues that they are getting prison and sentencing reform ready for the coming year and expect to pass important criminal justice reforms with the help of conservative legislators. And perhaps, the President’s strategy is correct, as conservative a Senator as John Cornyn (R-TX)  has introduced a prison reform bill.

In the Senator’s statement introducing the bill, he noted, “Modeled after successful reforms in Texas, this bill will target only non-violent, low-risk offenders to reduce the taxpayer burden, while ensuring that dangerous criminals remain off the streets. By working to reduce the number of repeat-offenders, we can improve safety, as well as costs, for our communities.”

We may find the Administration letting Conservatives take the lead in Prison and Sentencing Reform is the best strategy for getting reform passed.

Life Without Parole for Non-Violent Offenders

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Novemebr 18, 4013

Taken from a Press Release from the ACLU: “In the first-ever study of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union found that at least 3,278 prisoners fit this category in federal and state prisons combined.”

“A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses” features key statistics about these prisoners, an analysis of the laws that produced their sentences, and case studies of 110 men and women serving these sentences. Of the 3,278 prisoners, 79 percent were convicted of nonviolent, drug-related crimes such as possession or distribution, and 20 percent of nonviolent property crimes like theft.

The report goes on to state that the number of offenders sentence to life without parole has quadrupled over the last twenty years, with 65% African-American.

There are now important forces at work to reform this anomaly. Senators Rand Paul and Patrick Leahy, Attorney General Eric Holder and other influential policy makers are coming out for the reduction and /or elimination of the mandatory minimum laws that make these outrageous sentences possible. It’s important to remember the 3000+ offenders presently serving  life terms, when we reform the mandatory minimum laws.



Attorney General Endorses Federal Reentry Courts

Screen Shot 2013-11-12 at 8.51.44 AMNovemeber 11, 2013

Last week, Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General journeyed to Philadelphia to attend a session of the STAR Federal Reentry Court Program. The STAR Program (Supervision to Aid Re-entry) has shown substantial success.  Nationally, 47 percent of federal offenders return to prison before the end of their court-mandated supervision. Among STAR participants, that figure is about 20 percent, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Officials estimate STAR has already saved $1.5 million in incarceration costs.

Attorney General Holder sat through a session where seventeen participants talked to the presiding judge about their experiences in an informal setting and received individual attention and encouragement from the judge and reentry court team. Holder expressed great admiration for the Philadelphia Reentry Court Program and described similar efforts as a high priority for the remainder of his term.

RCS has visited the STAR program before. In 2010 we published the STAR Reentry Court’s Annual Report (see 2010  STAR Annual Report) While Federal Reentry Courts are a welcome addition to existing Problem-Solving Courts, to be honest their success has been limited by the number of participants .

The Federal Reentry courts, have been to my knowledge, the only significant attempt by the federal courts, themselves, to monitor and support offenders leaving federal prisons. The numbers of participants are small; apparently 17 current participants in the Philadelphia program (some Fedral Reentry Courts have as few as ten participants). Compare that to the vast number of offenders in need of  similar programs. And while the Philadelphia Reentry Court has shown a willingness to deal with serious and violent offenders in its programs, most other Federal Reentry Courts have been reluctant to do so.

As background,  I first approached Federal Judicial and Probation Officials in 1999, as  President of NADCP (National Association of Drug Court Professionals). They were dubious at best as to the potential of Drug Courts or other Problem-Solving Courts, at the front end of the sentencing process.. When we suggested that a similar program be embedded at the backend of the prison term, they did not seem particularly interested. Since then, there has been a small shake-up in the Federal Courts re alternatives to prison.

There are apparently over forty Federal Courts across the nation who have embrace the Problem-Solving Court concept. The structural, institutional, and procedural adherence to the Problem Solving Court Model has been uniformly exceptional. What is a concern is the token quality of the federal commitment. I don’t know why the federal push for reentry court has been so limited, but i do know that it needs to reach out to a substantial number of offenders to have any significant impact on recidivism.  I do not say this lightly. One or three or five percent of released Federal Offenders are a good beginning for a well structured program that has made a commitment to deal with a great many more. I hope that the Attorney General’s endorsement and setting of Federal Reentry Courts as a priority for the Justice Department will make a difference.




Federal Reentry Courts and Other New Models of Supervision

March 11, 2013

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A new article on Federal Reentry Courts, by the Honorable Laurel Beeler, has been published in the March edition of the Federal Lawyer. It deals with the different models of Reentry Court as well as other problem-solving courts available at the federal court level (click on image on the left for full PDF of article).

The article  provides general information and an excellent introduction for those with an interest but little background in Federal Reentry Courts.




Philly Federal Reentry Court Provides Legal Services

A report distributed to Philadelphia federal district judges in December of 2010 on the Supervision to Aid Re-entry (“STAR”) program, described the regional reentry court as a highly successful model for the federal judiciary. Among the reports special points of interest was an innovative use of legal interns to provide legal services to federal probation participants (there is no parole, only probation in the federal system):

  • A continued  partnership with the Philadelphia Bar Association and local law schools, which provide participants with free legal assistance for issues such as credit repair, traffic court, license restoration, child custody, and business development assistance.
  • A successful credit restoration project, enabling dozens of participants to correct errors and deficiencies in their credit history

San Francisco’s Federal Court begins Reentry Court

Feb. 14

The United States District Court for the Northern District of California has announced the establishment of a reentry court program for certain individuals on federal post-conviction supervision. The first federal court will be established in San Francisco, and Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero will preside. The court will meet every two weeks. Additional reentry courts may be established in the district in the future.

For documents describing the planned court, see PDF attached.

Even Probation Successes Get The Blues

Today, Wednesday I facilitated three morning sessions on  the many faces of reentry court programs, and interviewed an ex-federal probationer. The interview turned out to be the most exciting part of a very interesting day. I got to ask the ex-probationer ( who had spent 108 months in federal prison)what were his problems with the Federal Reentry Program. He candidly spoke of the lack of services available and the specific lack of employment assistance. A federal probation officer who then joined the ex-offender on the stage explained that work was available, but that ex-offenders were typically not ready or prepared to do it. The contrast and brief confrontation between the two men was a change from the success stories often heard  from ex-offenders. Sometimes, it simply better to get ex-offenders to respond to probing questions regarding programs they’ve completed.

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