HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Russoniello Pressed on Drug Policy
Pubdate: Tue, 21 Apr 2009
Source: Recorder, The (CA)
Copyright: 2009 ALM Properties, Inc.
Author: Dan Levine
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


SAN FRANCISCO - U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello wasn't scheduled to
talk Saturday at the Northern District's annual conference in tony

But with some popular demand, Russoniello decided to leave his home in
a nearby stomped-grape purlieu to face defense lawyers and some judges
over his office's stiff new charging policies. This resulted in heated
- - and occasionally ugly - exchanges, as well as a picture of the
federal bar that is deeply divided about the right way to approach
criminal justice.

At one point, K&L Gates partner Jeffrey Bornstein - himself a former
federal prosecutor - questioned Russoniello on his office's use of
higher mandatory minimums to pressure defendants into pleading guilty
without fighting their cases. If a prosecutor really believes that a
particular defendant deserves a 20-year prison sentence, Bornstein
said, then the government should just file that defendant's prior drug
conviction at the outset, and then litigate the case.

By making the longer prison sentence contingent on a defendant's
willingness to fold - without regard to the individual circumstance -
prosecutors are abdicating their discretion across the board,
Bornstein said, and making it impossible for defense lawyers to advise
their clients.

"When was the last time you handled a drug case?" Russoniello asked,
prompting drawn breaths in the room.

"I've got three," Bornstein shot back.

The weekend confrontation was the latest in a running controversy in
Northern California. Since taking over as U.S. attorney, Russoniello
has argued that by using mandatory minimum sentences as leverage, his
office can more efficiently close cases. In one matter last week,
Judge Maxine Chesney validated the government's strategy of hiking one
defendant's prison time because he wouldn't snitch.

Russoniello took great exception Saturday to the notion that drug
defendants with multiple priors are victims of their

"We didn't put them in the position where they have valuable
information for law enforcement. They did - by their conduct,"
Russoniello said.

Chief Magistrate Judge James Larson, an early critic of the policy,
questioned the premise that more prison time could cure society's
crime problem. And just because a defendant has a few drug priors
doesn't necessarily mean that the person is going to commit crimes
forever, Larson said, adding that he could point Russoniello to some
"faith inspiring" stories.

But the U.S. attorney said he could point to many more examples of
recidivism, asking Larson if he was "naive enough" (words that drew
more audible inhales) to believe that a person convicted of several
drug crimes by the age of 25 could be a bookkeeper.

"Somebody has to draw the line and say, 'No more,'" Russoniello said.
"It just so happens that around here, that falls to federal

The panel began with a presentation from Federal Defender Barry
Portman, who later told The Recorder that Northern California hadn't
traditionally been known as a "crack district." Last year, for
example, when the U.S. sentencing commission revised a guideline for
crack cocaine sales, Portman said his office found 95 cases over the
last 20 years that could qualify, while other districts had well over
a thousand.

Where wholesale drug cases with large quantities used to be the norm,
Portman said the focus now is on retail: Since Russoniello's new
policy kicked off in December, prosecutors have targeted 35 clients
represented by the federal defender's office - 27 of them with
low-level crack cases.

Several line prosecutors sat in the audience Saturday, but none
ventured into the debate. Nanci Clarence of Clarence & Dyer questioned
Russoniello about the racial disparities seen under the new policy.
The U.S. attorney chalked it up to the prevalence of street dealers in
certain minority areas like Oakland and Richmond.

"Been to the Marina lately, Joe?" Clarence asked. Russoniello
responded that he had.

"There's a little cocaine being sold in bars in the Marina as well,"
Clarence said.

Russoniello was silent for a few seconds. "Tell us the names of the
bars, and we'll follow up on it," he said. 
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