5. CHRONICLE AM: ILLINOIS LEGALIZATION BILL MOVING, ALABAMA FORFEITURE
REFORM BILL MOVING, MORE... (5/29/19)
The Alabama legislature is busy, an Illinois marijuana legalization bill
could get a Senate floor vote today, Louisiana Republicans kill a
legalization bill there, and more. https://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2019/may/29/chronicle_am_illinois
Back in 1994, in the depths of the war on drugs, Sonny Mikell picked up
a third federal drug conviction in Florida and was handed a mandatory
minimum sentence of life in prison. No guns, no violence, but the
22-year-old black man was still looking at spending the rest of his life
"I had jobs off and on, I worked as a cook, but I got on the path of
selling drugs and caught and charged in 1991 and 1992, and then caught
that last one in '94," Mikell said in an interview last week. "And they
gave me a life sentence for conspiracy to sell crack. All they needed
was the two priors, and then they could hand down a life sentence."
Sonny Mikell is emblematic of the tens of thousands of people, disproportionately black and brown (http://www.drugpolicy.org/resource/drug-war-mass-incarceration-and-race-englishspanish),
imprisoned with draconian sentences under repressive drug laws passed
with bipartisan support in the 1980s and 1990s. The war on drugs caused
both state and federal prison populations to skyrocket, cementing the
land of the free's status as the world's leading jailer.
In the federal prison system, where Mikell did his time, fewer than
5,000 people were doing time for drug offenses in 1980 (https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf),
before the Reagan-era acceleration of the Nixon-era drug war. By 1995,
that number had increased a whopping ten-fold to more than 52,000. With
more harsh drug sentences in the 1994 crime bill, the number of federal
drug prisoners doubled again to a peak of nearly 99,000 in 2010, before beginning to fall as 21st century efforts to undo the damage of mass incarceration began to kick in.
For 25 years, Mikell did his time quietly while picking up only one
minor disciplinary infraction: "I worked, I was a cook in the kitchen, I studied law, I worked on my case, I filed motions to try and see what
could help," Mikell said of his years behind bars. "Most got denied."
But as Mikell and thousands like him rotted behind bars for decades,
attitudes toward the war on drugs and the resort to mass incarceration
to wage it have changed and pressure for relief mounted. Given the
failure of the drug war to eliminate drug use, arguably even to reduce
it, and given the damage done to communities of color by heavy-handed
policing and ever-increasing numbers of breadwinners hauled off to
prison and families disrupted, the states began embracing sentencing
reforms shortly after the turn of the century.
But it would take a few years more for those new realizations to work
their way to the federal law and give Mikell and his fellow federal drug
war prisoners the hope that they might somehow, someday be given a
second chance. That came under the Obama administration.
But because the new law wasn't retroactive, it did no good for Mikell
and his imprisoned peers. That changed in 2011, when the Sentencing
Commission voted to retroactively apply new, more lenient sentencing
guidelines in the Fair Sentencing Act to people sentenced before the law
was enacted. With that move, thousands of federal prisoners have been
able to seek and obtain sentencing reductions.
But not Sonny Mickell. The Sentencing Commission's move only affected
federal sentencing guidelines, not the mandatory minimum laws that had
him in a box for life. It would take that rare Trump-era bipartisan achievement, the passage of the First Step Act (https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5682/) late
last year, to give Mickell a shot at freedom. That law extended the
sentencing reductions for crack offenders to people sentenced prior to
the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act -- even those with mandatory
"Hoping it was my chance, I filed for clemency when Obama was in
office," Mikell recalled. "The Clemency Project tried, but I get denied.
I told myself I couldn't lose hope, and when the First Step Act passed
and made those sentencing cuts retroactive, I contacted my lawyers and
asked if I qualified."
"I was assigned to Sonny's case," explained Juliann Welch, a federal
public defender in the appellate division of the Middle District of
Florida. "The judge set a hearing for the case on March 15 and I was
ready to argue that he was eligible for some relief, but the judge had
already reviewed the records and said he didn't see any reason to keep
Sonny in prison and reduced his sentence to time served right there."
Even though federal prosecutors objected to the summary ruling, Welch
said it was clearly the correct call: "When they passed the First Step
Act, sentences like Sonny's are the wrong they were trying to right,"
she said. "He had never done a day in prison and then got a mandatory
life sentence as a young kid for a nonviolent drug crime."
"Ms. Welch called me the same day the judge issued the order, and they
gave me a bus ticket home," Mikell recalled. "That's all they gave me."
In the couple of months that Mikell has been free, he's been reuniting
with family, trying to catch up with technology, and trying to
reestablish himself in society.
"I have good family support," he said, explaining that the mother of a
woman he had dated basically adopted him while he was in prison. "She is
a goodhearted woman, she always stayed in contact, and she's still
there. It was a sight for me to see her. I can still hardly believe it.
I still don't know how to use these phones, though," he laughed.
But being able to find employment is no laughing matter for an ex-con.
"I've got a drivers' license and I'm looking for a job, but people want
to know what's on your resume, where you've been. Every day I try to
find a job, but it's tough with that hanging over my head."
Mikell has something else hanging over his head, too: A potential move
by federal prosecutors to appeal his sentence cut and send him back to
prison for life.
While prosecutors have yet to actually file their appeal to send Mikell
back to prison, Welch said their legal issue was a bit of sentencing
arcana that revolved around the weight of the drug for which he could be
held culpable. Although he was only found guilty for 50 grams by a jury,
a sentencing judge using a lesser standard of evidence in effect at the
time found him culpable for 290 grams.
Prosecutors will argue that current federal drug statutes that have a
280-gram cutoff would render Mikell ineligible for release under the
provisions of the First Step Act. Welch is prepared to fight that case
on its merits, but wonders what the prosecutors are thinking.
"Even though the judge found him responsible for 290 grams, the
government never proved anything beyond 50 grams," she said. "But we
will argue it and have to wonder why they think a sentencing finding of
ten extra grams is worth sending him back to prison for life."
"I think that's just wrong," said Mikell. "The law is designed to help
guys like me who have been in for years and years. It gives judges the discretion to give a man a second chance, and these prosecutors are
coming back and saying we want you in prison, but they're not looking at
the individual, just the law. I didn't do any violent crime on the
street or in prison. I don't understand why they're trying to send me
back to prison."
Neither does public defender Welch. "They haven't move to reincarcerate
him pending appeal," said Welch. "If they really thought he was a public threat, they would have moved to keep him in prison, but they didn't."
Appealing First Step Act sentence cuts would seem to run counter of the
law's goals, and it's not clear who in the Justice Department is
advising prosecutors to appeal Mikell's case, Welch explained.
"The US Attorney has to have the permission of the Solicitor General to
appeal, but we don't actually know how far up the chain this has gone,"
Hundreds of inmates have already received sentence cuts under the First
Step Act, but at least one other released prisoner has been threatened
with an appeal. Gregory Allen's was a similar case to Mikell's, with
federal prosecutors raising the same legal issues.
"We don't know why that dropped that appeal," Welch said. "We suspect it
had something to do with the optics. The Justice Department and US
Attorneys have to consider which cases they want to make the face of
Prosecutors have until the end of the month to actually file their
appeal. Welch and Mikell are hoping they will reconsider. After all,
that's what the First Step Act is supposed to do.
bliss -- Cacao Powered... (-SF4ever at DSLExtreme dot com)
bobbie sellers - a retired nurse in San Francisco
"It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.
It is by the beans of cacao that the thoughts acquire speed,
the thighs acquire girth, the girth become a warning.
It is by theobromine alone I set my mind in motion."
--from Someone else's Dune spoof ripped to my taste.