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February 17, 2014

Federal judge urges passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act because of "Prisoners I Lose Sleep Over"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline given to this recent commentary piece in the Wall Street Journal authored by senior US District Judge Michael Ponsor. Here are excerpts:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the "Smarter Sentencing Act" by a bipartisan vote of 13-5 on Jan. 30, sending it to the Senate floor.  The legislation is excellent and its passage would mean a long overdue correction of a misguided sentencing regime that Americans — including federal judges like me — have struggled with for more than two decades.

I've been on the federal bench for 30 years, having served 10 years as a magistrate judge and 20 as a U.S. district judge.  My pride in our constitutional system runs bone deep: No system of law has ever existed that tries so hard to be truly fair.  I can take scant pride, however, in the dark epoch our criminal sentencing laws have passed through during my decades handling felony cases....

For years, I could recite the mandatory terms for crack in my sleep: five years for five grams, 10 years for 50 grams, 20 years for 50 grams with one prior conviction, life without parole for 50 grams with two priors — no discretion, no consideration of specific circumstances.  These mandatory terms (unless the defendant cooperated by implicating others) were the same for low-level couriers, called mules, as for high-echelon drug lords.

By passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized that this system of mandatory sentences, in addition to being unjust, was to some extent racially skewed since black drug users tend to favor crack, while whites prefer much less harshly penalized powder cocaine. Yet defendants sentenced before the act was passed still languish today, serving out sentences that virtually all members of Congress now recognize as excessive.  And there is not a darn thing anyone can do about it. If you're the one doing the sentencing, this reality will keep you awake at night, believe me.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce 20-year mandatory sentences to 10, 10-year sentences to five, and five-year sentences to two years.  Increased numbers of offenders with very modest criminal records would not face mandatory sentences at all.  If adopted, the law would also permit thousands of prisoners to seek reduction of their prison terms to bring them in line with the Fair Sentencing Act.  None of these changes would reduce the power of judges to slam the really bad actors. But they would permit judges to do what they are paid to do: use their judgment.

Our vast prison apparatus is too costly, but more important, it is unworthy of us as a free people.  This new statute is well named — now is the time for smarter sentencing.

Some recent related posts concerning Smarter Sentencing Act:

February 17, 2014 at 10:08 PM | Permalink

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Judge Ponsor writes: "The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce 20-year mandatory sentences to 10, 10-year sentences to five, and five-year sentences to two years. Increased numbers of offenders with very modest criminal records would not face mandatory sentences at all. If adopted, the law would also permit thousands of prisoners to seek reduction of their prison terms to bring them in line with the Fair Sentencing Act. None of these changes would reduce the power of judges to slam the really bad actors. But they would permit judges to do what they are paid to do: use their judgment."

Congratulations to the Judge for speaking common sense.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Feb 18, 2014 3:09:32 PM

While the Smarter Sentencing Act is a step in the right direction, how many times have we seen guidelines at nearly half of the mandatory minimum for criminal level I defendants?

We were at sentencing for a young man today that was sentenced to 10 years but his guidelines were the 70 month variety. The judge noted his displeasure at the 10 year sentence, but had no ability to do anything about it. I see this once or twice a week.

Hopefully the Justice Safety Valve Act (or a sane amendment to the Smarter Sentencing Act) can hand the possibility of a safety valve to far more people that deserve it.

Posted by: Don | Feb 18, 2014 11:22:30 PM

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