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June 24, 2009

Speech by AG Holder for "Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy"

As I noted in this post, a big event this afternoon in DC took place under the heading "“Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy: 25th Anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act."  Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the event, and his speech can now be accessed at this link.  Here are just a few of the many highlights:

The federal sentencing system, which includes both sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, has undergone significant change since the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Booker.  The guidelines continue to provide a sentencing baseline in all federal criminal cases.  However, Sentencing Commission data show that the percentage of defendants sentenced within the guidelines has decreased since the decision.  Although the full impact of recent trends in sentencing jurisprudence is still unclear, these developments should be monitored carefully.  For example, we should assess whether current sentencing practices show an increase in unwarranted sentencing disparities based upon regional differences or even differences in judicial philosophy among judges working in the same courthouse.  But we must also be prepared to accept the fact that not every disparity is an unwelcome one.  The desire to have an almost mechanical system of sentencing has led us away from individualized, fact-based determinations that I believe, within reason, should be our goal.

We must also be aware of the fact that the federal inmate population continues to increase. This development puts an enormous strain on correctional resources.  The number of inmates in federal prisons, state prisons, or local jails has quadrupled since 1980, reaching more than 2.2 million today.  Of particular concern, the burgeoning prison population limits the ability of corrections officials to provide drug treatment and other services necessary to minimize recidivism.  A 2002 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked a sample of more than a quarter-million prisoners released in 15 states in 1994.  Within three years, two-thirds of these offenders were rearrested at least once for a new offense, nearly half were convicted for a new crime, and another quarter were re-sentenced to prison for a new conviction.

The current federal sentencing system continues to be a target for criticism from judges, academics, and attorneys across our nation.  These criticisms range from concerns about mandatory minimums to the use of acquitted conduct in sentencing decisions. Accordingly, a thorough review of federal sentencing and corrections policies, with an eye toward possible reform, is welcome and necessary.

UPDATE: This new AP report on the event stresses the AG's remarks about crack-powder sentencing disparities and also notes that Justice Breyer talked about getting rid of mandatory minimums:

Attorney General Eric Holder sought support Wednesday for erasing the gap in prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine crimes, a disparity that hits black defendants the hardest....  "One thing is very clear: We must review our federal cocaine sentencing policy," Holder said at a legal discussion sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus....

In remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus event, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who helped craft the sentencing guidelines that now are the subject of so much criticism and debate, urged Congress to focus first on the laws creating mandatory minimums for certain crimes.

"My goodness, those mandatory minimums drive (sentencing) guidelines in 100 different ways," Breyer said.  The justice acknowledged that curtailing mandatory minimums is not politically popular, or easy. "It's very, very hard to explain to people," he said.

June 24, 2009 at 06:59 PM | Permalink

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