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November 14, 2006

An early report from the USSC crack hearing

This AP story provides some highlights from today's US Sentencing Commission Public Hearing on "Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy — 2006" (background here and here).  Here are some snippets:

A federal judge who served as a top drug policy adviser to the first President Bush and advocated harsher penalties for crack cocaine crimes said Tuesday the policy had gone too far and was undermining faith in the judicial system.  U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton told the U.S. Sentencing Commission that federal laws requiring dramatically longer sentences for crack cocaine than for cocaine powder were "unconscionable" and contributed to the perception within minority communities that courts are unfair....

The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, indicated Tuesday that it welcomed a discussion about the sentencing disparity but adamantly opposed lowering the penalties for crack. The Justice Department says crack is more addictive and easier to sell in small doses, leading to increased violence and a greater health impact. The Justice Department also urged the Sentencing Commission only to make recommendations to Congress and not to take it upon itself to narrow the gap by rewriting sentencing guidelines.

Walton said there may still be a need for tougher sentences for crack because it is more addictive and more closely associated with violence.  But he said the disparity is too great.... Walton said the law wasn't intended to target poor people or minorities.  But with a disproportionately high number of minorities in prison and potential jurors openly balking at convicting drug offenders because of concerns over the fairness of the system, Walton said the problem must be addressed.  "I hope the powers that be will have the will to do the right thing and rectify the problem," Walton said.

UPDATE:  I also now see here that Ari Shapiro had a piece today on NPR's All Things Considered entitled "Panel Weighs Equity of Crack, Cocaine Sentences."  It includes a few brief quotes from various folks who testifies at today's hearing.

November 14, 2006 at 07:36 PM | Permalink

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Comments

DOJ's decision to advocate for USSC recommendations over Guideline revisions is a savvy political move. If the Commission makes only recommendations, then it must depend on Congress to take affirmative action in order to implement any changes in the 100:1 ratio. If, on the other hand, the Commission rewrites the Guidelines to soften the effect of the 100:1 ratio in the relevant conduct context, then the changes would go into effect unless Congress took affirmative action to stop it.

This might seem like a silly technical point, unless you take a look at Judge Katzmann's opinion in U.S. v. Castillo, 460 F.3d 337 (2006).

Posted by: C.Hessick | Nov 15, 2006 1:41:05 PM

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