Feds take inspiration from California's drug sentencing guidelines

If, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, the states are laboratories of democracy, then California has been a kind of Nobel-prize team, cranking out initiatives that change the way we look at culture, politics and crime, and sending them out for the rest of the country to sample.

One of these has been around since 2000, so long that it has just become part of the fabric of courts and cops in California -- Proposition 36, sending eligible nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.

The feds have been watching, and now they’ve jumped aboard, with CASA -- the Conviction and Sentencing Alternative project.

Andre Birotte, the U.S. attorney for seven Southern California counties, told me about it when I interviewed him for my “Patt Morrison Asks” column.

“There was no such thing in the federal system. Having come from the state system,” as a Los Angeles County public defender, “I had always wondered why we didn’t have something like that” at the federal level.

From wondering about it, he made it happen. When he became U.S. attorney in 2010, he began working on a federal version of Proposition 36. “Clearly, the judges have been thinking of it as well,” yet “quite frankly, there was some resistance” in his office. “Everyone needed to agree to have it happen,” and with the judges on board, it did.

CASA is now up and running. “I’ve spoken at, I think, three graduations” for CASA offenders who’ve made it through the program, he said, “and it’s something, to be able to see these individuals who could go down a different path, seeing them getting an opportunity. We had someone who was going on to law school. It might have been a different scenario for him with a conviction on his record.”

Now CASA seems to fit in with U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder’s ideas for revising federal drug punishment, including shorter sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

When Holder announced his smart-on-crime initiative last year, “he specifically cited the CASA program as an example," Birotte said. "That was a proud moment for the Central District family [the U.S. attorney’s office] to be recognized in that manner.”


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