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A San Diego Perspective On Reforming Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences

A San Diego Perspective On Reforming Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences
A San Diego Perspective On Reforming Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences
GUESTS:Paul Pfingst, attorney, Higgs, Fletcher & Mack Susan Fisher, legislative advocate, Citizens Against Homicide

At years of politicians trying to outdo one another with new tough on crime legislation, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. Last week President Obama became the first President to visit a federal prison. He was there to make his case United States is putting too many nonviolent offenders in prison for to too long. The primary driver of this mess incarceration phenomenon is our drug laws are mandatory minimum sentencing around drug laws. We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and real estate individual. Congress is considering a new bill called the State save Justice act that would among other things reform mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug crimes. Here and company voters have already tightened up the Three Strikes Law to apply to violent crimes and reduce the number of felony offenses on the books. Federal mandate to mandates to lower prison populations have forced our state to introduce is a deferment programs including more drug treatment options. The San Diego law enforcement community has pledged to carry out all these changes in policy but do police and prosecutors really believe as House Speaker John Binner said last week that there our many people in prison he really do not need to be there. Joining me our attorney Paul Pfingst served as San Diego County district attorney form 1995 to 2002, a partner in a lover of pigs, Fletcher in and welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. Susan Fisher user, a legislative assistant for Citizens Against Homicide and for mature of the state parole board. Welcome to the program. Thank you. Paul, these are surprises things from the President and speaker but our justice system. What you think thischange in attitude is taken place? Crime is down across the country and in 1994 when I first ran for district attorney the number one issue in the public was crime and number two issue is crime and the number three issue is crime. I don't know what four was but I think was crime so what happened is in response to that the legislators enacted laws and those laws included increased sentencing and a variety of other procedural reforms to make it easier to incarcerate people into give them longer sentences. Now the primate in San Diego and across the country substantially reduced by more than half and the number one issue is no longer crime. Now what's happened is we switch to other issues and there's a little bit of a hangover in terms of the prison population both in California and nationally not only is a large but it is expensive. So there our dual motives to reduce the prison population. I think one of the President's motives is of course he feels that the prison population. Leave is this partially black and brown and that the Dysport SNAP numbers are such and so overwhelming that looking at trying to rebalance, if you will, with some cap ethnicity is that the driver of the courts ration our drug laws. The first place to start would be the drug lost. Many federal and local prosecutors across the country have been faithfully enacting an depending tough drug laws for years. This must be a rude awakening coming from the highest levels. One of the things we asked prosecutors to do and I've been there is if the public passes law, prosecutors are supposed to enforce and if they don't then along never gets changed. So what we're seeing now is the enforcement of the law has cause people to confront the consequences of the enforcement of the law and now we are seeing a hangover effect from these laws is now we are examining change. We did this with three strikes. I posted three strikes when it was first on the ballot and at some .3 strikes is going to fill up the prisons so we are going to go crazy and ultimately now we are changing three strikes but I enforce three strikes. Plus tutors are not supposed be making your boss, they are supposed to follow the legislature in enforce the laws on the book. Susan Fisher, as the former chair of the state parole board, what is your take on the statement that there our many people in prison really don't need to be there? In California that wasn't my experience when I was doing parole hearings. I did succeed hundred hearings to the time I was Commissioner and at least that many revocation hearings as a deputy Commissioner and the folks I was saying were cycling through the system during the revocation process were cycling through the system and many of them are drug addicted. Some of them were unmedicated totally ill parolees for self-medicating. They were for the most part violating their parole with nonviolent offenses, but they were certainly capable of doing things that would put other people in harms way. Iunderstand the concern about the folks who may be imprisoned with drug issues, but the fact is that if we don't do something with them they are deadly dangerous. What about diverting drug offenders, nonviolent, low-level drug offenders into drug court or revocation programs? When Jerry Brown decided to change the way that we do parole in California, part of what we were hearing as commissioners and deputy commissioners was that the programs were going to be changing, that people the people were going to be putting these guys into programs and the attitude is always as if these parolees and the Quebeckers want help. I can tell you that about half of the time what I did with people who had violated their parole was put them in a program. 99% of the time they walked away. If we cannot force them to stay in programs we cannot force them to rehabilitate, we cannot have them on the street because they are potentially dangerous than we have to figure out what we are going to do with them that were. As a general Proposition we are not talking about was people in the criminal justice system whether these people belong in jail, it is for how long. The problem has been the mandatory minimums mostly on the federal side, not just in California, the mandatory minimums are extraordinarily long. What happens is you get somebody who is relatively low-level drug offender, doesn't seem so low-level if that person got your son or daughter hooked on meth evidencing all of a sudden, search for the prison is pretty strong good FITR and first-time drug offenders on the stateside have hard time getting into prison list they have a history. On the federal side the minimum droxidopa Tim Morris are much more severe they are in the stateside and that's what's driving the federal action to take a look at this with the states already taken actions in this difficult for you by reducing low-level drug crimes to misdemeanors rather than felonies but nonetheless the driving force I think is the federal drug laws not the state drug laws. Talking about the state four-minute so many analyst no longer believe that, we three strikes law was key in reducing crime rates in the 1990s. If it didn't reduce, didn't significantly reduce crime didn't have any other positive effects? I was against three strikes but it reduced crime. The question is how much. They is no question about the fact that in my mind that we locked up a lot of people longer who would have been recidivist have they got out. The questionis what's the trade-off for that 20 years to rude if you take a 20-year-old was a three strikes guy and now he is 54, do you want to keep him them in jail until he dies? At some point that discussion is now being had. But there's no question that between the age of 24 and 50 that person did not commit the crime. Most people who are jail in California in prison in California in population studies where they asked them anonymously, you felonies did you commit their cost once for every 12 they committed. That's one of the reasons crime went down. But it doesn't mean that the crime -- if you give a 10 year sentence rather than a 30 year sentence you would have the same result. That I think where the debate should be focused on is we believe generally in most societies in our homes in graduated sanctions a first-time offender is different than the second time offender is different than a third time offender but in the federal system thus so that the state system but to some extent, first-time offender is treated like a fourth time offender when you get to the minimum mandatory sentences and we want to start out with a 15 year sentence for first-time offender? Susan, besides addressing mandatory minimums, the President last week talked about reforming conditions within this, reducing the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. He urged people to stop joking about rape and violence in prisons. What do you think about that? I don't think the President is an expert on criminal justice. I think that he probably should have that discussion with folks who are before he starts making pronouncements about how shell we -- how we should helping. The large number, 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day throughout the federal prison system I suppose he was referring to, does that seem excessive to you? On the surface, sure it does. I don't know -- I know why people are in solitary can find meant in the state of California. Idon't know why they are in the federal system, but I think that to make a pronouncement across the board that he has to be changed without any real knowledge of how the criminal justice system works is probably a little bit reckless. He also recommended that gains not be tolerated in this and much of the -- That's a good idea. Make that happen. Is that much of the California system the discipline-based on people being in gains? Gangs are dominant. Every prison in the state is divided by gangs. The idea of wiping that out is like wiping disease off the face of the years. It is endemic to the prison system. Everybody has been trying to do that as long as anybody can remember. Somebody who does not know what they are talking about. However, do you think that Susan if it was more of an emphasis on rehabilitation imprisoned, not for people outside who can can go to these drug treatment programs or not, but in prison, that would increase the number of prisoners who were getting parole? No. I still believe and what's been having done 1600 life for hearings people real bullet take themselves. You can provide the programs, you can provide the information, you can ride the incentives, but people, to a decision that they don't want to be that personal person any longer and they rehabilitate themselves. I think that we should provide the programs I think we should provide the incentives, but I don't think that you can assume that every criminal wants to be rehabilitated. I think it is naive We hear this with drug people who are not ready for reallocation. How many families have tried to intervene in their own families and get someone into health and rehab. and resources and everything else, but until you reach the point that you are ready for it it is not going to be forced upon you. We are not real good at rehabilitating people. We can spend an awful lot of money, we don't, but we could spend a lot of money and still be back at it. We just have not unlocked the key to that. They is this fantasy I think over time that all we have to do is put money to people and all of a sudden they will be reviewed, and be productive members of society. History teaches that is not true, we are not good at it and would we try it there's a short-term money influx to support a program in three years later the legislature has to make cuts, the money disappears and then we pretend to do rehabilitation but we never follow through with it. We are not good at it the first place and with people efforts we make they tend to be stop and go stop and go. Let me go -- move from the politicians to the public for one of my final questions, Paul and the longest time the public seem to be behind the idea putting prisoners in prison, during which the key. To think that's changed? To a degree my yes. The public is still intolerant of crime. IMINT courtrooms every day and I see jurors all the time and I see people at the courthouse and around the street all the time, people are intolerant to crime. Has the level of personal fear gone down? Yes. Do people feel the neighborhood is safer and where their schools and so on our safer? Yes. Are people still bent out of shape about people who commit crimes? The answer to that is still yes. Has there been a willingness to explore other options? Clearly yes. So what the public is making this mind as to what they consider a criminal justice priorities for incarceration and the nonpriority incarcerations. In California anyhow, they decided and drug crimes that's going to be a nonpriority for incarceration and violent crimes and others are still going to be treated as badly as harshly as they can be treated. Okay. I want to end it there and I have been speaking with the attorney Paul Pfingst, from the San Diego County district attorney and to take a legislative advocate for Citizens Against Homicide, thank you very much. You're welcome. Thank you.

President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he went last week to El Reno Prison in Oklahoma. He used the opportunity to speak out against mass incarceration.

Congress is considering a new bill called the SAFE Justice Act that would, among other things, reform mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level non-violent drug crimes.

"A primary driver of this mass incarceration phenomenon are drug laws, are mandatory minimum sentencing around drug laws," Obama said last week. "We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals."


In California, voters have revised the three strikes law to apply to violent crimes and reduced the number of felony offenses on the books through Proposition 47, which the San Diego law enforcement community has pledged to carry out. Federal mandates to lower prison populations have forced California to introduce prison deferment programs, including more drug treatment options.

The changes are a result of crime rates dropping, said Paul Pfingst, a defense attorney and former San Diego County district attorney from 1994 to 2002.

“In 1994, the No. 1 issue was crime, so in response to that legislators enacted laws to make it easier to incarcerate people,” Pfingst told KPBS Midday Edition on Monday. “Now the crime rate in San Diego and across the country has substantially dropped. And, not only is it (the prison system) large, but it’s expensive. So there are dual motives to reducing the prison population.”

But Susan Fisher, former chairwoman of California’s prison parole board, said lowering the inmate population could hurt the public. She said when she served, 99 percent of parolees walked away from rehabilitation programs.

“If we can’t force them to be in programs, if we can’t rehabilitate them, we can’t have them on the streets,” Fisher said.