FAMM has long been concerned that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is not administering the law that permits federal courts to grant early release — commonly referred to as “compassionate release” — for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons such as imminent death or serious incapacitation. We did not appreciate just how bad the problem was until we finished our research for this report.
The 128-page report, “The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons,” is the first comprehensive examination of how compassionate release in the federal system works. It is based on scores of interviews with federal prisoners, family members, advocates, and current and former Bureau of Prisons and Justice Department officials, as well as a review of court and legislative documents.
We will have much more to say about this issue in the weeks and months ahead, but we wanted to let you know about the new report it. Be sure to listen to Mary on NPR . You’ll also be able to access the interview on the NPR Morning Edition website.
This 128-page report is the first comprehensive examination of how compassionate release in the federal system works. Congress authorized compassionate release because it realized that changed circumstances could make continued imprisonment senseless and inhumane, Human Rights Watch and FAMM said. But if the Bureau of Prisons refuses to bring prisoners’ cases to the courts, judges cannot rule on whether release is warranted. Since 1992, the Bureau of Prisons has averaged annually only two dozen motions to the courts for early release, out of a prison population that now exceeds 218,000. The Bureau of Prisons does not keep records of the number of prisoners who seek compassionate release.
How Mandatory Minimums Forced Me to Send More Than 1,000 Nonviolent Drug Offenders to Federal Prison
If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do. I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction. In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison.
For years I have debriefed jurors after their verdicts. Northwest Iowa is one of the most conservative regions in the country, and these are people who, for the most part, think judges are too soft on crime. Yet, for all the times I’ve asked jurors after a drug conviction what they think a fair sentence would be, never has one given a figure even close to the mandatory minimum. It is always far lower. Like people who dislike Congress but like their Congress member, these jurors think the criminal justice system coddles criminals in the abstract—but when confronted by a real live defendant, even a “drug trafficker,” they never find a mandatory minimum sentence to be a just sentence.
Many people across the political spectrum have spoken out against the insanity of mandatory minimums. These include our past three presidents, as well as Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist, whom nobody could dismiss as “soft on crime,” and Anthony Kennedy, who told the American Bar Association in 2003, “I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences.” In 2005, four former attorneys general, a former FBI director and dozens of former federal prosecutors, judges and Justice Department officials filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court opposing the use of mandatory minimums in a case involving a marijuana defendant facing a fifty-five-year sentence. In 2008, The Christian Science Monitor reported that 60 percent of Americans opposed mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders. And in a 2010 survey of federal district court judges, 62 percent said mandatory minimums were too harsh.
Federal judges have a longstanding culture of not speaking out on issues of public concern. I am breaking with this tradition not because I am eager to but because the daily grist of what I do compels me to.
On Tuesday I noted a Washington Post editorial that described the Obama administration’s policy regarding medical marijuana as mainly “hands off,” with the Justice Department “focusing scarce resources on major violators.” Similarly, the Associated Press reported a few weeks ago that “the Obama administration has largely turned a blind eye” to medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Here is what that hands-off, blind-eye policy looks like in Montana: Chris Williams, a partner in Montana Cannabis, faces a prison sentence of 80 to 92 years for supplying patients with marijuana—and for insisting on his right to a trial.
Williams’ business was one of several Montana dispensaries raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration last year. He is the only defendant arrested as a result of those raids who has refused to plead guilty. One of his partners, Tom Daubert, received probation; another, Chris Lindsey, reached a similar deal but has not been sentenced yet; and a third, Richard Flor, died while serving a five-year prison sentence.
What explains this astonishing range of penalties, from zero prison time to nearly a century? Mandatory minimums….to continue reading,