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April 8, 2011

Judge Mark Bennet thoroughly explains why he is stil going to use 1:1 ratio in crack sentencings

In a week full of important crack sentencing news, I think the most interesting development come from Iowa in the form of a lengthy new opinion by US District Judge Mark Bennett in US v. Williams, No. CR 10-4083-2-MWB (D. Iowa Sept. 27, 2010) (available for download below). I could say so much about so many notable passages in this 82-page opinion, but I will be content to let the first paragraph and the conclusion of the Williams opinion speak for itself:

Defendant Billy Williams, Sr., came before me on March 15, 2011, for a presentencing hearing on his motion for downward variance, objections to the presentence report, and other legal issues, following his guilty plea to four crack cocaine charges.  Although there were numerous other issues to be resolved in the course of Williams’s sentencing, this Memorandum Opinion And Order focuses exclusively on the issue of whether I should continue to adhere to my prior determination that a 1:1 crack-to-powder ratio is appropriate to calculate the guideline sentencing range for crack cocaine offenses, or should now adopt the roughly 18:1 ratio adopted by the Sentencing Commission on November 1, 2010, pursuant to a congressional mandate in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  When I first learned that the 2010 FSA was about to be passed, I just assumed that I would change my opinion from a 1:1 ratio to the new 18:1 ratio, because I assumed that Congress would have had persuasive evidence — or at least some empirical or other evidence—before it as the basis to adopt that new ratio.  I likewise assumed that the Sentencing Commission would have brought its institutional expertise and empirical evidence to bear, both in advising Congress and in adopting crack cocaine Sentencing Guidelines based on the 18:1 ratio.  Failing that, I assumed that the prosecution would present at the presentencing hearing in this case some evidence supporting the 18:1 ratio.  This Memorandum Opinion And Order addresses whether my modest expectations have been fulfilled and whether I should now also adopt the 18:1 ratio adopted in the amended Sentencing Guidelines....

Make no mistake: I believe that the replacement of the 100:1 crack-to-powder ratio of the 1986 Act and associated Sentencing Guidelines with the 18:1 crack-to-powder ratio of the 2010 FSA and the November 1, 2010, amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines was a huge improvement, in terms of fairness to crack defendants.  While such incremental improvement is often the nature of political progress on difficult social justice issues — and, in this instance, the increment is perhaps unusually large — an incremental improvement is not enough to make me abdicate my duty to “[c]ritically evaluat[e] the crack/cocaine ratio in terms of its fealty to the purposes of the Sentencing Reform Act.” See Whigham, ___ F. Supp. 2d at ___, 2010 WL 4959882 at *7.

Performing that duty here, I must reject the Sentencing Guidelines using the “new” 18:1 ratio, just as I rejected the Sentencing Guidelines using the “old” 100:1 ratio, based on a policy disagreement with those guidelines, even in “mine-run” cases, such as this one.  I must do so, because I find that the “new” 18:1 guidelines still suffer from most or all of the same injustices that plagued the 100:1 guidelines, including the failure of the Sentencing Commission to exercise its characteristic institutional role in developing the guidelines, the lack of support for most of the assumptions that crack cocaine involves greater harms than powder cocaine, the improper use of the quantity ratio as a “proxy” for the perceived greater harms of crack cocaine, and the disparate impact of the ratio on black offenders.  I also find that the “new” guidelines suffer from some additional concerns, in that they now create a “double whammy” on crack defendants, penalizing them once for the assumed presence of aggravating circumstances in crack cocaine cases and again for the actual presence of such aggravating circumstances in a particular case.

In one respect the “new” 18:1 guideline ratio is more irrational and pernicious than the original 100:1.  When the 100:1 ratio was enacted, Congress and the Sentencing Commission did not have access to the overwhelming scientific evidence that they now have.  This overwhelming scientific evidence now demonstrates that the difference between crack and powder is like the difference between ice and water — or beer and wine.  Can anyone imagine a sentence that is many times harsher for becoming legally intoxicated by drinking wine rather than beer?  Of course not.

I also reiterate that the proper methodology, in light of my policy-based rejection of the 18:1 ratio in the Sentencing Guidelines, is to calculate the guideline range under existing law (i.e., using the 18:1 ratio) and any appropriate guideline adjustments or departures, including the “new” adjustments for aggravating and mitigating circumstances, but then to calculate an alternative guideline range using a 1:1 ratio, again including appropriate guideline adjustments or departures, again including the “new” adjustments for aggravating and mitigating circumstances.  The court must ultimately use or vary from that alternative guideline range based upon consideration of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors in light of case-specific circumstances.

I will sentence defendant Billy Williams, Sr., accordingly.

Download 10cr4083.dno305.Williams.newcrackratio.040711

April 8, 2011 at 11:07 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Apr 8, 2011 12:24:04 PM

I love Judge Bennett!

Posted by: 8th Cir def atty not in Iowa | Apr 8, 2011 12:50:58 PM

Wow, with congress and the ussc unable to reach a viable decision, this was very good work..

Posted by: Josh | Apr 8, 2011 1:07:43 PM

The physicist Richard Feynman used to tell a story:

"We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It's a little bit off because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It's interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan's, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn't they discover the new number was higher right away? It's a thing that scientists are ashamed of - this history - because it's apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan's, they thought something must be wrong - and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan's value they didn't look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that..."

Similarly, Congress/USSC's M.O. seems to be "Yes, we're wrong, but we've been doing it wrong for so long we can't start doing it right just yet. We'll make ourselves less wrong, but still wrong enough to not bother anyone."

Posted by: NickS | Apr 8, 2011 2:38:33 PM

Boy, did NickS hit that nail on the head. When Booker came out and the Supreme Court said the guidelines are just guidelines, everyone thought that federal sentencing was going to become a wide-open vista. But in my experience, judges just give guideline sentences. When they sentence outside the guidelines, it's under the same circumstances where they would have departed under the old regime. I guess people became so used to applying the guidelines and fighting about them, that we wouldn't know what to say at sentencing if we didn't have them.

Personally, and I know this isn't an original thought, I'd like to see juries become more involved in sentencing, even if just an advisory capacity. I've seen judges muse about the idea, but I've never seen one try it. If the parties agreed and the verdict was merely advisory, I can't see any reason why it couldn't be done.

Posted by: C.E. | Apr 8, 2011 11:32:35 PM


Posted by: ilcawatc | Apr 9, 2011 1:32:36 AM

Putting justice ahead of moronic politics...real judges do that.

Posted by: John K | Apr 10, 2011 1:04:24 AM

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