Crack/powder disparity must end, panel hears

Congress must eliminate the disparity between federal criminal sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, the American Civil Liberties Union told the U.S. Sentencing Commission during a hearing today at the Stanford Law School.

The commission held the second in a series of regional public hearings on federal sentencing policy, marking the 25th anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, yesterday and today. The commission sets federal sentencing guidelines that are meant to balance goals such as punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation while providing some certainty and fairness across all of the nation’s federal judicial districts.

But Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, testified that the cocaine disparity – in which a first-time simple possession of five grams of crack cocaine requires the same five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine – is inherently unfair.

That’s a 100-to-one disparity that disproportionately impacts blacks, she testified; ACLU criminal justice lobbyist Jennifer Bellamy explained to me later today that law enforcement resources are more concentrated in minority communities, so although studies estimate that two-thirds of crack users are white or Latino, 80 percent of federal inmates imprisoned for crack offenses are black.

“The creation of crack cocaine mandatory minimum sentences, developed in the wake of a flood of misinformation, illustrates the need for the Commission and Congress to base sentences on facts not fear,” Fredrickson testified. “Only when sentences reflect a review of the best pharmacological and social science evidence will the perception and reality of racial bias be eliminated.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., has introduced H.R. 265, the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2009, which aims to equalize the crack and powder sentencing laws. Among the bill’s 35 cosponsors are Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont; and Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose.

“We hope that in recommending its passage to Congress, the Commission will emphasize that the Jackson Lee bill is a first step towards an end that will only be achieved when mandatory minimums are also eliminated,” Fredrickson testified.

UPDATE @ 10:57 A.M. TUESDAY 6/9: U.S. Sentencing Commission spokesman Michael Courlander notes that although the commission has made known its position on the crack-powder cocaine disparity, it has taken no position on any specific legislation to address the disparity.


David Harmer in, Tom Del Beccaro out in CD-10

Lisa had reported the possibility in April, but now it’s official: Republican attorney David Harmer – son of former California lieutenant governor and Southern California state legislator John Harmer – says he’ll be a candidate in the 10th Congressional District should Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, be confirmed to the State Department post to which she is nominated.

“Now more than ever, we need Congress to practice prudent fiscal management,” he said in his news release. “Instead, Congress is mortgaging our children’s future with trillions of dollars in new debt. It’s the opposite of the American dream. We’re living beyond our means and leaving the bill for our kids.”

Harmer, of San Ramon, said he believes the district’s voters share his commitment to fiscal responsibility. “The 2008 elections offered a great opportunity for change, but a doubling of the national debt within four years and massive corporate bailouts is not the change we had in mind I am running for Congress to work toward common-sense solutions.”

And although this will be an uphill battle for him – the district has an 18-percentage-point Democratic registration edge – Harmer said he already has raised more than $150,000 for this race. Spokesman Michael Caporusso said if this early support is any indication, “we’re well on our way to raising over $1 million for this election.”

California Republican Party Vice Chairman Tom Del Beccaro of Lafayette told me this morning he won’t be a candidate – “It’s just not the right time for me,” he said – and we’re hearing that Contra Costa Sheriff Warren Rupf probably won’t seek the seat either (although I couldn’t immediately reach him this morning to confirm).

Other potential GOP candidates include Fairfield City Councilwoman Catherine Moy, who has set up an exploratory committee Web site; 2008 10th District nominee Nicholas Gerber of Moraga; and CBS News Radio National Business Correspondent and former KTVU Channel 2 Business Editor Brian Banmiller.


Local businesses honored by Assembly members

Chicken and waffles with a good book, food for body (and soul) and mind – these are a few of my favorite things. And local Assembly members singled out purveyors of these delights as businesses from each district around the state were honored this week by the California Small Business Association in Sacramento.

Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, D-Alameda, picked Derrick Johnson of the Home of Chicken and Waffles in Oakland’s Jack London Square as his district’s honoree, praising Johnson’s practice of hiring and training local workers including many at-risk youth.

Although originally from Oakland, Johnson’s father and uncles opened a small chain of Los Angeles restaurants called Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. In the late 1990s, his cousins invited Johnson – then living in Florida – to invest in the first Roscoe’s restaurant in Oakland; that investment eventually turned into ownership, with Johnson eventually moving, renaming and reopening the Jack London Square eatery.

“As a small businessman, Derrick Johnson has created an enterprise that is not simply a financial success, but a community achievement as well,” Swanson said. “By hiring local residents, particularly those who often have difficulty finding work, Home of Chicken and Waffles contributes to our economy while creating a better quality of life for many people. I was very pleased to nominate such a deserving business.”

Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, honored Michael Barnard, owner of Rakestraw Books, as the 15th District’s winner. Rakestraw hosts a regular program of author appearances and events with local Schools, and has created community partnership events with other local businesses and non-profits; Barnard has served on the Danville Area Chamber of Commerce board and is now president of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

“Through his hard work, Rakestraw Books – ‘The Bookstore in Danville’ – continues to be a community institution,” Buchanan said. “Small businesses make significant contributions to the California economy. They are the heart and soul of our communities, and Rakestraw books is just that,” Buchanan said.

More local Bay Area honorees, after the jump…
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Rally for ‘Social Security fairness for teachers’

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley; and Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, are expected to join President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s niece, union officials and others Saturday for a rally “for Social Security fairness for teachers.”

Organizers say as many as 3,000 teachers might gather for the event from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. this Saturday, May 30 in the Berkeley Community Theater at Berkeley High School, 1930 Allston Way, to demand the repeal of legislation which currently keeps teachers and other public-service employees in California and 14 other states from receiving the earned Social Security benefits they’ve paid for and believe they’re entitled to.

Bills are pending in Congress – H.R. 235 by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Los Angeles, and S.484 by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. – that would repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset.

The WEP requires that someone’s Social Security retirement or disability benefit be reduced when they’re also entitled to a pension from a job in which he or she didn’t pay Social Security tax; the GPO can reduce or eliminate the Social Security benefit for spouses, divorced spouses, and surviving spouses who also receive a pension based on their own work for federal, state or local government that was not covered by Social Security. Both became law in 1983.

The activists behind this rally say these provisions “have financially disadvantaged teachers for decades” by requiring that teachers who worked in the private sector before or during their teaching careers can’t collect full Social Security from deceased spouses or get the same Social Security payouts as other workers even if they paid in the same amounts. These provisions affect not only teachers but many other public-service workers including police, firefighters, and government service workers, they say.

The Assembly earlier this month voted 62-13 in favor of Torlakson’s Assembly Joint Resolution 10, urging Congress and President Barack Obama to repeal the provisions; the resolution is now pending before the state Senate.

Saturday’s rally is being organized by The Grassroots Committee For Social Security Fairness; co-sponsored by the California Retired Teacher Association; and supported by labor groups including the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association.


No charges against Don Perata?

I’m hearing that Acting United States Attorney Lawrence G. Brown of Sacramento is preparing to issue a statement saying he’s declining to file any charges against former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland — thus spelling an almost-certain end to a years-long corruption investigation in which nobody was ever charged.

You’ll recall that federal prosecutors for California’s Northern District in San Francisco decided to take a pass on the case several months ago, so the FBI took its evidence — reams of subpoenaed or seized documents, interviews with potential witnesses and so forth — to Brown in the Eastern District. The Don as well as his family, friends and former staffers were not amused, saying the FBI was venue shopping for its non-existent case.

Looks like the Perata for Mayor 2010 campaign is about to get a big boost. I’ll be following this as the day progresses…

UPDATE @ 12:55 P.M.: Yep, it’s all true — read all about it here, and stay tuned for updated versions throughout the day.

UPDATE @ 5:25 P.M.: David Dayen at Calitics wants to know if The Don will give back the $1.9 million he diverted from his Leadership California committee – ostensibly created to support Democratic campaigns and causes – into his legal defense fund late last year. (And hey, what about the $450,000 he got from the California Democratic Party?) Fat chance, David… looks as if it’s all gone into lawyers’ pockets by now. At least the Fair Political Practices Commission has now cracked down on these smelly transfers.


What they’re saying about the Prop. 8 ruling

Lots of quotable quotes from near and far on today’s California Supreme Court ruling upholding the validity of Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but allowing last year’s 18,000 same-sex marriages to stand.

Oakland City Attorney John Russo:

“The truth is, the anti-marriage crowd is fighting a cause that is already lost. The arc of history bends toward justice and we will see justice for same sex couples in California and in the nation. It may not be as soon as we want – progress in civil rights never is. But despite this ruling, we will continue to fight for equality under the law for all Californians, and we will achieve it.”

Alliance Defense Fund Senior Legal Counsel Austin Nimocks:

“In America, we respect the results of fair elections. The California Supreme Court arrived at the only correct conclusion available: the people of California have a fundamental right to amend their own constitution. This is the second time California has voted to protect marriage. Once again, when marriage goes before the voters, they affirm that marriage means one man and one woman. All 30 states that have voted on whether to affirm marriage as one man and one woman in their state constitutions have done so.

“By allowing the previously-issued same-sex ‘marriage’ licenses to remain valid, the court is perpetuating the problem that it itself created. And it’s doing this despite the clear vote of the people that marriage means one man and one woman and that anything outside of that is not marriage.”

Tons more, after the jump…
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