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Marion County Jail Bans Letters and Parcels November 29, 2009

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Marion County jail inmates soon won’t be able to get letters from the outside. They’ll have to settle for postcards.

Starting as soon as Jan. 1, jail officials are going to limit incoming and outgoing mail to postcards only. Current policy allows letters with no limit on the number of pages.

The policy will save the county money and man-hours spent sorting through more than 1,000 pieces of general mail inmates receive each week.

“We’re not trying to be mean or make people upset,” Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers said. “It’s about efficiency and safety in the workplace.”

Inmates will be required to purchase standardized pre-stamped 3.5-by-8.5-inch postcards from a commissary. The postcards feature a photo of the jail.

The new rules will not affect mail to and from public officials or legal mail.

The benefits of the new policy include decreased traffic of contraband items through the jail, as well as saving time and costs, Marion County jail Cmdr. Jeff Holland said.

The most common contraband item deputies find is pornography, Holland said.

Contraband has “been a problem off and on as long as I’ve been in the business — 23 years,” Holland said.

Each year, the county spends about $60,000 to cover man-hours spent sorting jail mail, Holland said.

“We estimate by going to the postcard system we can cut that by half,” Holland said.

It takes about nine hours per day to process mail, Holland said. That amount of time will be scaled back, and deputies will use the time to patrol the grounds and focus of safety, the sheriff said.

“We’ll be able to refocus the time on safety and security of the facility,” Myers said.



Oregon Prison Food Scandal Exposed November 27, 2009

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Doug Levene wasn’t expecting visitors at his rural Maryland office when a stranger knocked on the door.

A suited man introduced himself with a gold badge — the credentials of an FBI agent.

Levene’s business built on bribery had just come to an end.

For more than six years, Levene, a veteran food broker, faithfully sent money to an Oregon prison executive, buying his way into the state’s $10 million food budget. Now Levene is headed for federal prison, a felon.

He isn’t going alone. Four others also face prison after the unraveling of one of Oregon’s worst episodes of public corruption.

But the man at the core of the case — Farhad “Fred” Monem — lives free, beyond the reach of prosecutors in his native Iran. He is accused of taking $1.2 million in bribes while in his $79,000 a year state job. In return, prosecutors say, he steered millions in state business to food brokers such as Levene.

The broad outlines of the scandal have been revealed in court filings. Now, though, Levene is telling the inside story of how corruption came to Oregon. He agreed to interviews with The Oregonian to publicly acknowledge he was wrong and as an apology to Oregonians.

“I could have stopped it,” Levene said.

His version is necessarily one-sided because Monem isn’t commenting. In recent weeks, Monem told The Oregonian by e-mail from Iran that he wanted to tell his side of the story, but he hasn’t done so.

Levene’s memory alone is the source for his conversations with Monem. Court and prison records support other recollections. Prosecutors wouldn’t comment but noted in court that for two years Levene had provided verifiable information.

This extraordinary look inside public corruption starts off with a mundane tale of chicken.

“I didn’t order this”

In the fall of 1999, Levene was scrambling to save his business.

He had fired key salesmen from his food brokerage, including the man responsible for handling modest business with Oregon prisons. Levene was under pressure to find sales to clear out more than a million pounds of food stacked in warehouses across the country. His business was losing money.

Fred Monem recently had been promoted to chief food buyer for the Oregon prison system. His job was to feed 13,000 denim-clad diners.

Monem called Levene, asking why 11,000 pounds of chicken breasts had arrived at a state warehouse. “I didn’t order this,” Monem said, according to Levene.

Levene said he asked Monem to take the chicken anyway, explaining his dire circumstances.

Monem relented — and then sprang another surprise. What about the millennium steaks? He said he had been promised steaks to feed prisoners on New Year’s night 1999. Levene promised he’d do what he could.

“We found some imported rib steaks” and sent those out to Oregon, losing $8,000 on the deal, Levene said.

Levene said Monem sent in more orders. “He basically saved my job,” Levene said. “He had taken tons of stuff and had not hinted or asked for anything.”

Levene worked on the “spot” market where huge quantities of brand-name goods are siphoned out of normal channels because of imperfections, slow sales or looming expiration dates. The food — still edible — was deeply discounted to move fast.

In May 2000, Levene flew to Oregon. He was stunned by the scale of the Oregon Corrections Department’s operation, based in what was once the Salem distribution center for the giant WinCo Foods chain. He realized the extent of Monem’s buying power.

Monem and Levene had become friendly in regular early-morning phone calls. As best Levene can recall now, he and Monem were out for a walk, perhaps at the coast. They discussed friends and loyalty. They talked business. They talked future orders.

Then, Levene said, Monem made his move.

“Will there be anything in it for me?” Monem asked.

The question didn’t entirely surprise Levene. One of Levene’s top salesmen had once pointed out Monem as a “taker” — someone open to bribes.

Today, Levene acknowledges he broke the law. “I should have said ‘no’ to Fred that day.”

Instead, he offered Monem a share of his profits on sales to Oregon. He said the two men didn’t discuss details. The deal was understood, he said.

A month later, Levene packed up 15 $100 bills and dispatched them by FedEx to Monem’s Salem home.

The packages of cash — typically $4,000 to $5,000 — flowed, as did the deals for Levene. A business losing money badly was suddenly turning a profit. To tease Monem’s Muslim sensitivities, Levene occasionally would package the bribes inside Hustler magazine.

At the time, Monem lived in a modest Southeast Salem home and drove an older pickup. Levene cautioned Monem to not flash his newfound income.

Levene said he scrupulously reported all the income on his tax returns, although he later pleaded guilty to illegally deducting some payments from business tax returns.

He said he paid Monem his share only after deducting enough to cover Levene’s personal tax liability. He faced no tax charges relating to his personal tax returns.

But as business flourished for Levene, trappings of wealth appeared at Monem’s Salem home. He and his wife, Karen, traded up to luxury cars. She started buying expensive clothes and handbags. Levene recalled showing up at Monem’s home to find a big boat parked in the driveway.

“I told him, ‘You don’t need suspicions around you, the raised eyebrows,'” Levene said.

Monem moved the boat to a slip.

Levene insisted that while he and Monem were doing well, so was the state Corrections Department. He said Oregon received good food deals all along — sometimes at break-even rates for Levene. He said Monem insisted on driving down costs.

“My understanding with him was that not every deal would be a home run” for us, Levene said. “If it’s not good for Oregon, it’s not a good deal.”

Both men knew other Corrections Department officials would spot-check the food deals. Yet Monem never feared getting caught, Levene said.

As business bloomed, Monem insisted on a more businesslike arrangement. Levene devised a computerized spreadsheet. The spreadsheet showed what he paid for a particular food product, the price paid by the state and Levene’s profit. Levene would account for taxes and then record the 50 percent kickback owed to Monem.

He faxed the forms once a month to Monem.

Levene started meeting Monem in person to deliver cash. Most often, they met in Las Vegas but didn’t live like high-rollers, Levene said. The men shared suites costing no more than $300 a night. They played quarter slot machines and low-stakes craps.

Levene said he would pack $10,000 to $20,000 in cash in his briefcase. After the men checked in, Levene said, he’d take out the bank-banded money and toss it on the bed. “That’s yours,” he’d tell Monem.

The two talked seven days a week, and the men vacationed together with their wives. Monem served as his best man when Levene married in 2004.

Levene also introduced Monem to three men from Los Angeles. They, too, were food brokers, among Levene’s main suppliers. Levene said one of the men pulled him aside once in Las Vegas and asked if Monem was a “taker.” Levene said no.

But the Los Angeles vendors found out that Monem was, and soon Oregon’s orders to Levene started falling off. Levene found out why by accident.

Revealing phone call

On a fall evening in 2004, Levene and his wife were driving out of town for the weekend when he decided to check his office phone for messages. There was one — a recording of a call made when Monem mistakenly “pocket dialed” Levene from his cell phone.

Levene’s answering machine recorded nearly a half-hour of conversation. Levene said it was clear Monem was in Las Vegas, dining with the three Los Angeles brokers. That explained where the Oregon food sales had gone.

Levene drove to the office and listened to the tape 10 times. He called Monem in Las Vegas to confront him. Monem said Levene didn’t hear what he thought he did, that he had been pushing to get better deals for their own arrangement.

Levene said he didn’t believe Monem but he was trapped. He said his business depended on sales to Oregon, even at a diminished level. And he knew those sales would continue only as long as he kept paying Monem. By the end of 2006, he had sent $600,000 to Monem.

He began compiling a dossier on Monem. Levene said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the information. He saw two choices: Confront Monem about his duplicity or turn over the information to authorities.

He didn’t get to make the choice.

The FBI agent in his office that January day in 2007 was following up on tips provided by former employees of the Los Angeles operation. Levene initially denied any impropriety, but he was caught.

At that moment, across the country, investigators searching Monem’s home found the spreadsheets Levene had faxed, meticulously detailing every bribe.


U.S. Senate Approves Bill That Provides Funds For Prisoner Reentry November 25, 2009

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On Thursday, November 5, 2009, the U.S. Senate approved an appropriations bill for the Department of Justice for fiscal year 2010 (H.R. 2847) that provides $64 million for prisoner reentry, including $50 million for Second Chance Act programs and $14 million for reentry initiatives in the federal Bureau of Prisons. The version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives in June provides $114 million for prisoner reentry, including $100 million for Second Chance Act programs. The Senate appropriations bill also provides $10 million for the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA), whereas the House version provides $12 million. Members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees will now meet to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Reentry Program/Agency House Senate
Second Chance Act $100 million $50 million
Bureau of Prisons $14 million $14 million
Total: $114 million $64 million

Congress Orders Review Of Mandatory Minimum Sentences November 23, 2009

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Congress has ordered the panel that advises judges on prison terms to conduct a review of mandatory-minimum sentences, a move that could lead to a dramatic rethinking of how the U.S. incarcerates its criminals.

The review is a little-noticed element of the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law last month by President Barack Obama. The defense-spending bill calls on the commission to perform several tasks, including an examination of the impact of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws and alternatives to the practice.

Congress in the 1980s began passing mandatory-minimum laws, which dictate the minimum sentence a judge must hand out for a particular crime. Among the results were longer sentences, increased prison populations and ballooning budgets.

Amid cost concerns in recent years, states have tried to reverse the trend. At least 26 states have cut corrections spending recently and at least 17 are closing prisons or reducing their inmate populations, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit that studies sentencing and criminal-justice policies.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which advises judges on all other sentences, has now been charged with issuing recommendations on mandatory minimums. Any final change in sentencing law would have to come from Congress.

“It’s going to be a massive undertaking,” said the new chairman of the Sentencing Commission, William Sessions III.

Mr. Sessions, who is also the chief federal judge in Vermont, said the review would include everything from determining the effects of minimums on the size of the prison population, to spending and the social impact of the policies. “In my view,” he said, “it’s a very open-ended request.”

The inmate population in federal prisons has risen from 24,000 in 1980 to 209,000 as of Nov. 5. Over the same period, the federal Bureau of Prisons staff has grown from 10,000 to about 36,000 employees.

The commission has pushed for changes in mandatory minimums, such as ending the disparity in sentencing for crimes involving crack-cocaine and powder cocaine. Several proposals are pending in Congress to address the crack-cocaine issue. But the commission has not done a full-scale examination of federal sentencing laws since 1991. At the time, there were only 60 mandatory-minimum laws on the books. Now there are about 170.

According to a limited review released by the commission in July, most mandatory-minimum cases in 2008 concerned drugs or weapons crimes. The review found that 21,023 offenders were convicted of crimes that could have triggered the mandatory-minimum sentence. Many got more lenient sentences for a variety of reasons, including cooperation with authorities.

The commission will examine the effects of mandatory minimums on plea agreements. Critics of the system say the threat of such sentences is used to coerce plea bargains.

Members of the commission have been traveling the country to meet with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. Many have pressed the commission to provide alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent, low-level drug defendants.

James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest law-enforcement labor organization, said officers believed it was appropriate to review the system. But he said it shouldn’t happen “in a way that will result in criminals not being held accountable.”

Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said it was too early to tell where the review might lead.

“Certainly from FAMM’s perspective, as much information as the commission can provide on the operation and impact of mandatory minimums can only help us better understand and advocate for their elimination.”


Supreme Court Tackles Life Sentences For Juveniles November 21, 2009

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A seemingly divided Supreme Court wrestled Monday with whether teenagers can be locked away forever for their crimes. The question arose in two cases involving Florida men who are serving life prison terms with no chance of parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. Their lawyers argue that the sentences for people so young are cruel and unusual, in violation of the Constitution, because young people have greater capacity to change.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Supreme Court opinion four years ago that ruled out the death penalty for people under 18, judging them less responsible than adults. So most eyes were on him Monday as the court considered whether to extend that rationale to life without parole sentences.

But Kennedy offered little hint of his position, at one point suggesting it might be difficult to distinguish between juveniles and adults in cases that do not involve the death penalty.

“Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?” he asked.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg provided a possible answer, wondering whether teenagers can be accurately evaluated at the time they are sentenced. It may be possible that only after some years have passed that the state can determine, “Has this person overcome those youthful disabilities?” she said.

On the other side of the issue, Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether every last juvenile offender had to be given a second chance. “Some of the actual cases in which this sentence has been imposed in Florida involve factual situations that are so horrible that I couldn’t have imagined them if I hadn’t actually seen them,” Alito said, recounting two that involved the rape of children.

In the two cases before the court, Joe Sullivan was sent away for life for raping an elderly woman when he was 13 and Terrance Graham was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17.

Graham, now 22, and Sullivan, now 34, are in Florida prisons, which hold more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.

The justices could distinguish between the two based on the difference in their ages at the time of the crimes: It could rule that someone as young as Sullivan was must eventually be considered for parole without granting Graham any relief from his sentence.

Sullivan’s lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, stated his basic argument simply: “To say to any child of 13 that you are only fit to die in prison is cruel.” Sullivan would be resentenced to 40 years in prison if he were to win his case at the high court, he said.

Kennedy’s opinion in 2005 was rooted in two principles — that death is different from other punishments and that children are less culpable than adults.

Following that ruling, Stevenson noted that juveniles on death row in Florida — all convicted of murder — “got a better sentence than Joe Sullivan,” life prison terms with the possibility of parole.


50 People Will Go To Prison Today November 19, 2009

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Julie Stewart, President of FAMM, has a powerful message today.  The numbers of people being ensnared in mandatory minimum sentences is staggering.  Remember, right now you think this could never happen to you or a loved one.  Guess what, thousands of other Americans thought the same thing.  They were all wrong.

Every day, 50 people get a one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentence in federal court.  It doesn’t matter if the sentence doesn’t fit the crime.  It doesn’t matter if the judge disagrees with the sentence.  Twenty years ago, Congress created mandatory minimums, and today, another 50 people will suffer because of that mistake.

Fifty may not sound like a big number, but it has big consequences that add up.  Think about it.  Every day, that’s 50 parents leaving their children; 50 spouses separated from their partners; 50 sons and daughters removed from their families; 50 breadwinners put behind bars, leaving their loved ones struggling to get by.  In one year, that’s 18,250 overwhelmingly nonviolent offenders going to federal prison. Most of them will serve at least five years.

FAMM is working hard to fix the mistake Congress made 20 years ago.  We know the human toll of mandatory minimum sentences, and that’s why we’re still fighting.  Legislation is beginning to move in Congress.  Real reform looks more do-able now than it has any time in the last 20 years.

But we can’t make reform a reality without your financial support!  Now is the best time to give, because all donations given to FAMM before the end of this year will be matched dollar-for-dollar by one of our generous supporters.  Your gift goes twice as far if you give before December 31!  It’s just one of the many ways FAMM is ensuring you get some real bang for your buck when you support us.

We don’t want to see another day go by in which another 50 people are treated unjustly.  We know you don’t want to either, so click here to donate to FAMM today!


Measure 11 Mandatory Minimum Sentences Editorials November 17, 2009

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The Oregonian editorial board is right that the Supreme Court’s decision, which blocks Measure 11 sentences as too severe in rare cases, is only a “faint crack” in Measure 11’s blunt tool, (“A blunt instrument delivers a shock,” Sept. 26). But we’re not going to solve this problem by searching for the proper relationship “between the severity of the penalty, the gravity of the offense and the criminal record of the defendant.”

As Chief Justice Paul De Muniz said in his dissent, he and many judges “prefer a more enlightened scheme that would permit courts to sentence an offender in accordance with evidence-based practices that, in each case, are more likely to reduce offender recidivism and further community safety than does a mandatory minimum sentencing scheme.” He cited an article he authored with Missouri Supreme Court Justice Michael Wolff.

Getting proportionality right — making punishment “fit the crime” — is by far the easiest part of sentencing, but it is nowhere near enough. To earn back the sentencing discretion taken from us by ballot measures, we judges need to show that we’re good at the hard part — using evidence and the discretion we still have to select the sentence that works best to prevent the offender’s next crime, and to serve any other purposes actually at stake in a given sentencing such as the interests of a victim or the need to reinforce social values.

Marcus is a Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge.

I find it delightfully ironic that right across the page from an editorial explaining that the Oregon Supreme Court decision barely scratches Measure 11, I see a letter to the editor explaining that the law has been “softened” somehow. Richard Muller (letter, “Measure 11 finally softened,” Sept. 26) seems wholly ignorant of how we got Measure 11.

Far from being a “dirty trick,” it constituted the visceral reaction to occasions when a misguided judge perhaps felt bad for a defendant and released him with a slap on the wrist. Yes, it was harsh and yes, it was robotic, but giving the people the right to take a stand against injustice is what our initiative process is all about.

Voters freely chose to handcuff judges — to prevent them from releasing dangerous criminals — and it is hardly one man’s “dirty trick.”


I appreciate The Oregonian’s excellent editorial about the stupidity of Measure 11. However, anyone could ask, what is the thinking behind such politics?

My guess is that an answer may include our Victorian heritage, our record of hypocrisy and our ubiquitous materialism. We are scared silly that our stuff, usually unneeded and bought to impress others, will be ripped off.

We also have some unreasonable laws because of the efforts of our fellow Americans who are simply intolerant. In a shameful state that spends more on prisons than on higher education, may you continue to persuade us that it is time to rethink Measure 11, which apparently does more damage than good.

BOB GEARY Northwest Portland

Hooray for the state Supreme Court ruling against the mandatory sentences approved by Measure 11. This was a bad measure competing against a worse measure, and it should be abolished. The term “judge” is defined as “an official with authority to hear and decide cases in a court of law.”

Yet Kevin Mannix and his colleagues apparently think that this decision process should be their private preserve, established by mandatory sentencing.

Check out California, where the California Correctional Officers Association drives the political process to incarcerate more people with longer sentences — with mandatory sentencing — to build and fund more prisons. California corrections is a case of the tail wagging the dog. California is nearing bankruptcy, in part, because of this corruption of sentencing policy and because of the disproportion of budgetary power that has devolved to these self-interested, self-involved “law-enforcement” groups. Mannix, et al., attempted to promote the same outcome for Oregon.