« AMA changes its position to be more open to medical marijuana | Main | Ballon Boy parents cut plea deals providing for probation sentence »

November 12, 2009

Noticing the mandate from Congress to the US Sentencing Commission on mandatory minimums

This new Wall Street Journal article, which is headlined "U.S. Commission to Assess Mandatory Sentences," discusses the recently-enacted legislation instructing the US Sentencing Commission to study mandatory sentencing statutes.  Here are excerpts:

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....

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.

Given that there has been no real movement on even crack-powder mandatory reform over the last three years while Democrats have been in control of both houses of Congress, I am not especially optimistic that this newly-ordered USSC review will lead to "a dramatic rethinking of how the U.S. incarcerates its criminals."  Still, it is encouraging to hear the new head of the USSC talking about this ordered review being done in a grand manner.

Some related recent posts:

November 12, 2009 at 09:40 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e20120a6870936970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Noticing the mandate from Congress to the US Sentencing Commission on mandatory minimums:

Comments

I figure the grand manner of the report is part of what will lead to it being ignored. It will be too thick to grab the attention of any congress-critter.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 12, 2009 10:01:25 AM

While I can try to be optimistic, I'm betting this report will be ignored.

Proof positive: "[In 1991], there were only 60 mandatory-minimum laws on the books. Now there are about 170."

Congress had a report in hand discouraging the use of mand. mins. (along with many other groups also actively opposing them). What did Congress do with that report? As the quote above shows, they enacted about 110 more of them.

Posted by: DEJ | Nov 12, 2009 12:02:02 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB