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February 2, 2009

Why I fear change will not come quickly to federal sentencing policy and practice

The headline of this new article in the New York Times, "Justice Dept. Under Obama Is Preparing for Doctrinal Shift in Policies of Bush Years," might make sentencing fans hopeful that change may be coming soon to federal sentencing policy and practice as new personnel and new philosophies take over the top positions at the Justice Department.  But, as these snippets highlight, issues other than traditional federal criminal justice enforcement top the new DOJ's agenda:

Eric H. Holder Jr., whom the Senate is expected to confirm on Monday as the nation’s 82nd attorney general, plans to take the oath of office that evening to demonstrate a quick start, which will include overseeing the creation of a new detention policy for terrorism suspects.

Mr. Holder will have to contend with that and other issues rapidly. Lawyers inside and outside the department say he will face crushing time constraints. Chief among them is a pledge by President Obama to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Mr. Holder and a department task force must find a solution to the question of what to do with the remaining prisoners there and any apprehended in the future....

“I can’t imagine a more challenging time to come in as attorney general,” said Walter Dellinger, a legal scholar who was an acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration. “The number of legal issues left behind to be resolved is really staggering.”

In the Justice Department, there is considerable restiveness as employees await new direction. The civil rights division, which had been reshaped in a conservative direction under President George W. Bush, is ripe for sharp change, administration officials said. “Many of us cannot wait for the changes,” said one career lawyer in the division, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the atmosphere.

As this article documents, the triage plan for change at DOJ starts with terrorism policies and then turns to civil rights issues.  And though I view many ugly aspects of federal criminal justice law and policy to be the most pressing of civil rights issues, I doubt that the new personnel making key decision in the Obama Administration are focused first and foremost on acquitted conduct enhancements or inconsistent application of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

In other words, with so much else to do under extraordinary conditions, I fear that the status quo of federal sentencing policy and practice will seem good enough for the time being even to the most change-oriented of the new DOJ decison-makers.  And, even if new DOJ appointees might be eager to change course on various federal criminal justice policies, I fear that advisors will formally assert or informally suggest that the Obama Administration ought not risk spending political capital on any potentially hot-button criminal justice reforms when so many other issues are vying for attention.

The fact that we have not seen any clemency action in the first two weeks of the Obama presidency (which, as noted here, puts him behind the historical pace of presidential pardoning) confirms my instinct that change will not come quickly to federal sentencing policy and practice.  Though this comes as no surprise, my deeper concern is whether change will come at all in this arene of justice.

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February 2, 2009 at 09:56 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Revocation of the January 25, 2005, memo by then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey instructing all U.S. Attorneys to ignore the Supreme Court's holding in Booker and make no offers outside of the Guidelines would be a good start!

Posted by: Sumter L. Camp | Feb 2, 2009 11:14:52 AM

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