Jacob Sullum on Why Prosecutors Love Mandatory Minimums
When you see the stark choices that federal defendants face, you can begin to understand why an astonishing 97 percent of them decide to plead guilty. The bigger the gap between the sentence a defendant can get through a plea bargain and the one he will get if he is convicted after a trial, the stronger his incentive to “cooperate”—and the weaker the system’s claim to be doing justice.
Holder clearly is right that plea bargains do not require mandatory minimums. But from the perspective of prosecutors who are single-mindedly focused on obtaining convictions as expeditiously as possible—and terrified of what might happen if a substantial portion of defendants started asserting their Sixth Amendment rights—there is no reason to give up the enormous leverage that mandatory minimums provide.
This has led to the strange situation where the biggest opposition the Attorney General faces to reform of mandatory minimums comes from his own prosectors.
Just a reminder…
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
While this isn’t specifically a drug policy post, it’s something I wrote for my friends on Facebook that I wanted to share…
How’s your bullshit detector? In today’s world, you really need a working one, and you need to keep it well-honed.
Before the Information Age, there were editors and curators to manage the flow of information, cull out the obviously false or crackpot, and present the consumer with somewhat carefully vetted digests in the form of the nightly news, the daily newspaper, or the museum. While certainly not perfect, these systems at least provided a filter.
All that changed when the internet made all information, regardless of validity, available equally to consumers. Individuals were then required to become their own editors — something we absolutely failed to teach — and some succeeded, while many have failed miserably. Every crackpot idea, conspiracy theory, and false story can now find an audience ready to believe, simply because they’ve seen it ‘on the internet.’
First it was the viral emails that were circulated by your grandfather, and organizations like Snopes had to come forward to provide a repository for debunking them. Even then, it was amazing how few people seemed to have the capability of taking a phrase and typing it into Google to see if it had already been determined to be a hoax. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now a wider range of organizations and businesses are actually finding it advantageous to prey on the gullibility of the internet audience and purposely disseminate misinformation for political or financial profit.
A primary tool these organizations is taking advantage of is “confirmation bias.” Everybody has it, although they may not be aware. Confirmation bias makes you believe information that supports the opinion you already hold (despite contrary evidence) and to disbelieve even verified information that opposes your opinion. Someone who believes President Obama is unfit to be President is likely to believe any stories that he’s a Muslim, or not a citizen, or has some other defect, regardless of the lack of evidence. Similarly, someone who honestly (and correctly) believes that a group is being treated unfairly, for example, is likely to believe (and share on Facebook) any stories that support that belief, regardless of how far-fetched or untrue.
I had a very bad moment personally with confirmation bias. Years ago, there was a politician I didn’t like, and I heard online that this politician was hosting a horribly racist event. I was outraged (almost gleefully so) and wrote about it everywhere I could on the web, and even contacted local media to tell them about it so they would report the outrage. But I never verified the story. It was fake – a plant by someone to discredit this Congressman. I believed it without checking… because I wanted to.
That experience made me feel horrible, and I vowed never to let it happen to me again. Sure, I still despised that Congressman, but I was determined to use the truth and not be used by lies.
These days, confirmation bias is used in a variety of ways. A simple example is The Daily Current. While The Onion has established itself as a funny parody news site, the Daily Current instead prefers stealth — writing outrageous things that people would like to believe are true while subtly disguising the parody status, thereby getting people to share it and increasing revenue from links.
However, there are much more insidious approaches to misinformation. Advocacy groups of all kinds have discovered that they get more Facebook shares, more followers, and better fundraising the more that they are able to outrage their supporters. So, many of these groups exaggerate, manipulate the data, leave out key information, or repeat debunked points in order to motivate us. While probably the prime example of this technique is a lot of what you see on Fox News, it is also heavily used by mainstream advocacy organizations and websites across the entire political and social spectrum.
Some of this is going to get even worse as we approach the election cycle. Both parties know full well that the best way to motivate their base and stimulate fundraising is to find ways to get people outraged at the extremes on the other side. There’s nothing better than the boogie-man in the opposition — “If you don’t vote for us, people like THIS will be controlling your life.” Fear motivates, and it also keeps the party from having to actually defend or explain what it has done. Irrelevancy and misinformation is part of the bullshit coming from both parties.
Now, I write about drug policy. Because I care about writing accurately, when a new study comes out, I don’t just read the reporting about the study, I track down and read the study itself, which means I had to learn how to understand science writing. That’s all very time consuming and a lot of work, but it’s important to me to be accurate with what I share. I’m very careful not to share positions when I don’t have good information. That doesn’t prevent me from having a strong position.
I know, you can’t do that kind of work all the time on every subject yourself. But you can try to find the sources who do.
There’s no perfect source – you might think that a professional reporter would get it right, and yet I’m in the position of contacting reporters weekly to correct false information that they’re printing related to drug policy issues. And you certainly can’t necessarily trust the government – the drug czar, for example, is required by law to lie (true, check it out). There are false data points that have been repeated so many times in the media that they have developed a life of their own (human trafficking figures are a prime example).
So how can you detect the bullshit? It’s not easy. The first step is to be aware of your own confirmation bias — be suspicious of any information that automatically outrages you and makes you think “Yep, I knew it.” Before sharing it, try to find out some more – see if more than one site is reporting it, and find a source that you trust.
If a political or social “fact” has been photoshopped into a picture for easy sharing without links to verify it, it’s probably an exaggeration, out of context, or outright false.
If you’re getting nutritional science information from someone who calls herself The Food Babe, or an anchor on a television morning show, rethink it.
When a source of information you normally trust fails you even slightly, call them on it; if they fail to provide links, ask them for it.
Finally, if you care enough about a topic to share it with people, have the integrity to actually find out what the arguments are on the other side, and I don’t mean how your side characterizes the other side’s arguments, but what the other side truly believes and why. Actually try to step in their shoes. If your position is right, you shouldn’t fear this due diligence.
Be a good and responsible editor of your own information. Use your bullshit detector liberally.
Tracing the U.S. heroin surge back south of the border as Mexican cannabis output falls in the Washington Post.
Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25.
“It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”
Growers from this area and as far afield as Central America are sowing their plots with opium poppies, and large-scale operations are turning up in places where authorities have never seen them.
The ONDCP ‘blog‘ talks about a recent Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) training event, where Acting Director Botticelli was apparently the life of the party.
Acting Director Botticelli drew even greater applause with his announcement that ONDCP will increase funding for CADCA’s National Youth Leadership Initiative (NYLI)
Yeah, whenever I go to a party and hand out money, people seem pretty pleased with me.
Earlier in the day, the Acting Director took part in several roundtable discussions with DFC coalitions, exploring such themes as how to address the issue of marijuana legalization and the importance of forging partnerships with ONDCP’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program.
That’s important – Kevin Sabet can’t do everything for them.
In what was certainly the liveliest event of the day, the Acting Director got to play the part of “Mayor Botticelli” in a mock Town Council meeting. His task, which he eagerly accepted, was to preside over a make-believe council of young people as it heard opposing arguments and then voted on a proposal to ban the use and sale of “medical” marijuana.
Our government officials at work.
Prohibition-speak: “There hasn’t been enough study…”
Translation: “While there have been hundreds of studies on this topic, none of them have yet concluded what we wanted them to conclude.”
Prohibition-speak: “Studies conclusively show…”
Translation: “There was one study in New Zealand with 79 participants who also smoked tobacco that implied some possible negative associations.”
So, after the New York Times legalization editorial, a Kevin Sabet-coalition called called Grass is Not Greener ran a full page ad in the Times – one that has been widely ridiculed by reform groups for actually helping make the case for legalization by visually indicating that marijuana is used by people in all walks of life.
Now, there’s in the New York Times – this time supporting the Compassionate Care Act, paid for by Leafy, a website that reviews and locates medical marijuana locations.
Both ads are below the jump. See which one you think is best.
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I told you I didn’t have the patience to watch the full “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” hearing on stoned driving. Fortunately, Paul Armentano has the patience, and he reports that the hearing organizer didn’t exactly get what he was hoping for…
Not surprisingly, NHTSA’s inability to provide hard data to the Committee raised concerns among Congressional members. In response to Dr. Michael’s testimony, Rep. Connolly stated the obvious: “I just think it is amazing with some of the hyperventilated rhetoric about marijuana use and THC that 50 years after we’ve declared it a class 1 substance, we still don’t enough data to know just how dangerous it is in (regards to) operating a vehicle. That really raises questions about either the classification (of marijuana) itself, whether that makes any sense, or raises serious questions about how our government is operating in terms of the data it does not have and the science it does not know and yet the assertions that we (the federal government) make. That is not a good recipe for rational public policy.”
Paul’s full report below…
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Request from a reader who is working on a dissertation regarding incarceration as a result of the war on drugs:
DO YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW MEET THIS CRITERIA:
* Adult daughters (at least 18 years old)
* Identify as Black or African American
* Father incarcerated as a result of a drug offense
* Lived with your father prior to his incarceration
* The incarceration initially occurred when you were a child
If so please inbox me or email me at email@example.com. I know the criteria is strict, but this is only the beginning of my work with families and incarceration
COMPENSATION: $20 Visa gift card or cash after 60-90 min interview completed. Location of interview flexible. Thanks!
There’s a petition to get the New York Times organization to stop drug testing, now that their editorial department has called for marijuana legalization. Petition: stop drug testing employees for marijuana
In addition to the New York Times, the Washington Post also ridiculed the White House response to the New York Times editorial: The federal government’s incredibly poor, misleading argument for marijuana prohibition
That case, as it turns out, it surprisingly weak. It’s built on half-truths and radically decontextualized facts
Oh, and it turns out there is some evidence the New York Times was specifically aware of my page on the ONDCP being required to oppose legalization.
I hear from a source that Michele Leonhart was seen this morning in Mexico City with her full protection detail. I doubt she was vacationing. Look for some photo op on a major bust, or else she’s negotiating a deal with someone.
There was a Congressional hearing this morning led by prohibitionist Representative Mica entitled Planes, Trains and Automobiles (full video available). No it wasn’t about John Candy movies, but rather a hearing about “Operating while stoned.” Bunch of bureaucrats only, although I understand the staffers were given real scientific information from NORML (which was probably ignored).
I watched the first eight minutes of Mica’s ridiculous and lying performance and had no more patience. Someone else want to watch and report?
The Federal Marijuana Ban is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia
The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that is it almost impervious to reason. [...]
The federal government has taken a small step back from irrational enforcement. But it clings to a policy that has its origins in racism and xenophobia and whose principal effect has been to ruin the lives of generations of people.
Timing the Call the Repeal Marijuana
In the practice of editorial writing, timing matters a great deal. The series that The New York Times editorial board began on Sunday, calling for an end to the federal ban on marijuana, is receiving a great deal of attention not because it is a wildly radical move, far ahead of its time. It’s because it comes at a moment when the country is engaged on this topic, and is moving with surprising speed toward a different appraisal of marijuana [...]
“These are not new arguments,” said the Los Angeles Times, citing statistics about the cost to society of widespread marijuana arrests. “But this time they come from the New York Times, not High Times. Support for marijuana legalization has grown so rapidly within the last decade, and especially within the last two years, that some advocates and pollsters have compared it with the sudden collapse of opposition to same-sex marriage as a culture-redefining event.”
What about the White House?
The Required White House Response on Marijuana
When the White House issued a statement last night saying that marijuana should remain illegal — responding to our pro-legalization editorial series — officials there weren’t just expressing an opinion. They were following the law. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is required by statute to oppose all efforts to legalize any banned drug.
It’s one of the most anti-scientific, know-nothing provisions in any federal law, but it remains an active imposition on every White House. The “drug czar,” as the director of the drug control policy office is informally known, must “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” that’s listed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act and has no “approved” medical use.
I like to believe I had a hand in helping create awareness of this particular point.
Another great editorial: The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests
An extensive editorial about the destruction caused to our society by decades of arresting people for marijuana, including the exponential increase in enforcement and racial disparities.
And, while mentioning individuals who have ended up with horrific prison sentences for low-level crimes of marijuana, they also clearly help people understand just how offensive is that standard pathetic “nobody goes to prison for marijuana” argument that we hear from the Kevin Sabets of this world.”
Outrageously long sentences are only part of the story. The hundreds of thousands of people who are arrested each year but do not go to jail also suffer; their arrests stay on their records for years, crippling their prospects for jobs, loans, housing and benefits. [...]
Even so, every arrest ends up on a person’s record, whether or not it leads to prosecution and conviction. Particularly in poorer minority neighborhoods, where young men are more likely to be outside and repeatedly targeted by law enforcement, these arrests accumulate. Before long a person can have an extensive “criminal history” that consists only of marijuana misdemeanors and dismissed cases. That criminal history can then influence the severity of punishment for a future offense, however insignificant. [...]
For those on probation or parole for any offense, a failed drug test on its own can lead to prison time — which means, again, that people can be put behind bars for smoking marijuana.
Even if a person never goes to prison, the conviction itself is the tip of the iceberg. In a majority of states, marijuana convictions — including those resulting from guilty pleas — can have lifelong consequences for employment, education, immigration status and family life.
A misdemeanor conviction can lead to, among many other things, the revocation of a professional license; the suspension of a driver’s license; the inability to get insurance, a mortgage or other bank loans; the denial of access to public housing; and the loss of student financial aid.
In some states, a felony conviction can result in a lifetime ban on voting, jury service, or eligibility for public benefits like food stamps. People can be fired from their jobs because of a marijuana arrest. Even if a judge eventually throws the case out, the arrest record is often available online for a year, free for any employer to look up.
Yes, the “nobody goes to prison for marijuana” crap is not only false, but it’s a distraction from the real issue.