Thursday, December 13, 2007

Starting to Make Sense in Sentencing Crack Offenders: Supreme Court & Sentencing Commission Do Some Good

Both the US Supreme Court and the US Sentencing Commission did some good things this week, and are helping to move our federal system a bit closer to sanity in the treatment of federal drug offenders. However, draconian mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses remain, and we will continue to spend lots of tax dollars to lock up lots of people in this country for a long time. Don't think too much has changed, but this is welcome news. Read the CNN article of yesterday, Panel says 19,500 crack inmates can seek reduced sentences - (Panel says 19,500 crack inmates can seek reduced sentences; Panel votes unanimously to make change in sentencing guidelines retroactive; Monday Supreme Court ruling allows judges to ease harsh crack sentences) for news on both developments.

My previous post on this issue can be found here. For basic information about criminal law in Massachusetts (not federal law) see the criminal defense page of my law firm website.

"WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to allow some 19,500 federal prison inmates, most of them black, to seek reductions in their crack cocaine sentences.

Advocates argue that crack-cocaine offenders are unfairly targeted under sentencing guidelines.

The commission, which sets guidelines for federal prison sentences, decided to make retroactive its recent easing of recommended sentences for crack offenses.

Roughly 3,800 inmates could be eligible for release from prison within a year after the March 3 effective date of Tuesday's decision. Federal judges will have the final say whether to reduce sentences.

The commissioners said the delay would give judges and prison officials time to deal with public safety and other issues.

U.S. District Judge William Sessions of Vermont, a commission member, said the vote on retroactivity will have the 'most dramatic impact on African-American families.' A failure to act 'may be taken by some as particularly unjust,' Sessions said before the vote.

The seven-member commission took note of objections raised by the Bush administration, but said there is no basis to treat convicts sentenced before the guideline change differently from those sentenced after the change.


In two decisions Monday, the Supreme Court upheld judges who rejected federal sentencing guidelines as too harsh and imposed more lenient prison terms, including one for crack offenses.

In the crack case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion said Derrick Kimbrough's 15-year sentence was acceptable, although guidelines called for 19 to 22 years. 'In making that determination, the judge may consider the disparity between the guidelines' treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses,' Ginsburg said.

Kimbrough is black.

So are 86 percent of the 19,500 inmates who might see their prison terms for crack offenses reduced after the commission approved retroactive easing. By contrast, just over a quarter of those convicted of powder cocaine crimes last year were black.

The sentencing commission recently changed the guidelines to reduce the disparity in prison time for the two crimes. New guidelines took effect November 1.

'The Kimbrough decision is a tremendous victory for all who believe that the crack and powder cocaine disparity is unjust,' said Mary Price, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Kimbrough's case, though, did not present the ultimate fairness question. Congress wrote the harsher treatment for crack into a law that sets a mandatory minimum of five years in prison for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine or 100 times as much powder cocaine.

Seventy percent of crack defendants get the mandatory minimum.

Kimbrough is among the remaining 30 percent who, under the guidelines, are supposed to receive even more prison time for trafficking in more than 5 grams of crack.

Neither the court's decision nor the commission's guidelines affect the minimum sentences, which only Congress can alter.

In previous years, the sentencing commission reduced penalties for crimes involving marijuana, LSD and OxyContin, which are primarily committed by whites, and made those decisions retroactive."

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