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June 3, 2014

Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"

This notable new commentary in The Huffington Post by Megan Quattlebaum makes the case for the US Sentencing Commission to make fully retroactive its new guidelines amendment reducing most federal drug sentencing recommendations. Here are excerpts:

In a landmark decision, the United States Sentencing Commission voted last month to lower the recommended penalty for federal drug crimes by about 17 percent.  As of now, the change will apply only to defendants who are sentenced after November 1, 2014.  But the Commission is also exploring whether the reduction should be made retroactive, and it issued two reports two reports two reports (available here and here) analyzing that question last week.

Four things struck me as I read the reports. First, the Commission estimates that, if the changes were made retroactive, 51,141 individuals who are currently in prison (an incredible 23 percent of the total population) would be eligible to seek a reduction in their sentences.  That a large number of people will be affected is not surprising -- almost half of all federal prisoners (48 percent) are incarcerated for drug crimes.  But what is surprising is that even if all 51,141 were to get reduced sentences, we would have barely begun to bring the federal prison population down to pre-drug war levels.  We incarcerated approximately 25,000 people in federal prisons in 1980.  By 2013, that number had risen to over 219,000.  As a result, the federal prison system is operating at 36 percent over capacity, costing taxpayers $6.4 billion per year and climbing....

Second, a significant percentage (about 25 percent) of the 51,141 potentially eligible for earlier release are non-citizens who may be subject to deportation.  Many rightly question the wisdom of incarcerating large numbers of ultimately deportable non-citizens at taxpayer expense....

Third, the average age of an inmate who will be eligible for a sentence reduction is 38 years.  In the universe of criminal justice, 38 is old.  Researchers have consistently found that involvement in street crimes, like drug offenses, generally begins in the early teenage years, peaks in young adulthood, and dissipates before the individual turns 30. Explanations for this phenomenon are varied, but "[a] large body of research shows that desistance from crime... is... tied to the acquisition of meaningful bonds to conventional adult individuals and institutions, such as work, marriage and family..."  These older offenders should have a low risk of recidivism generally.  And the more that we can do to foster their re-engagement with their families and communities, the lower that risk will be.

Fourth, 20 percent of the individuals who may be eligible for earlier release come from one state: Texas.  True, Texas is big and populous, but it's also punitive.  The more heavily populated state of California only accounts for five percent of potential sentence reductions, while New York accounts for about four percent.  Reading the charts that accompany the Sentencing Commission report is a statistical window into the American drug war, in which hang 'em high southern states feature prominently, if not proudly.

The Sentencing Commission is accepting public comments until July 7, 2014 on whether to make these changes to drug sentences retroactive. Some will no doubt argue against retroactivity, either out of fear that releasing individuals earlier will permit them re-offend sooner or out of concern for the serious workload that federal courts will have to take onin order to process so many applications for sentence reduction.  But if we have revised our view of what constitutes a just sentence for a drug offense, then we cannot and should not justify continuing to incarcerate 51,141 people under an old, rejected understanding. We should never be afraid of too much justice.

I am grateful to see this thoughtful effort to dig into the US Sentencing Commission data concerning who could benefit from the new drug guidelines being made retroactive. And I think this commentary rightly highlights that the nationality status and the age profile of federal drug prisoners provide some important extra reasons for being comfortable with the new guidelines being made retroactive.

That said, the commentary about Texas justice and the state-by-state analysis strikes me a potentially a bit misguided. I suspect and fear that federal prosecution of drug crimes in Texas is higher than in other states not only because of the likely international dimensions to many drug crimes around the Mexican border but also because state drug laws in other states may be uniquely harsh. This commentary compares data from California and New York, but these two states have had a history of some notorious tough state sentencing laws (i.e., the Three Strikes Law in California, the Rockefeller Laws in NY). There may be so many federal drug prisoners from Texas not because state sentencing policies and practices are so tough, but because federal policies and practices relative to state norms are so much tougher and because local drug crimes are not really local along the border.

My point here is to highlight that state-by-state examination of federal drug sentencing patterns may reflect lots of distinct and dynamic factors.  Notably, the Commission data indicate that about the same number of federal drug prisoners from Iowa will be impacted by retroactivity of the new drug guidelines as from Arkansas and Mississippi combined.  These data alone hardly reveal the corn belt is the real "hang-em-high" center for the national drug war.  Ultimaely, ever-changing local, state and national drug use and trafficking patterns along with dynamic prosecutorial policies and priorities likely better explain state-by-state federal prisoner data than any social or political conventional wisdom.

Some various somewhat recent related posts:

June 3, 2014 at 01:36 PM | Permalink

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Comments

"In the universe of criminal justice, 38 is old."

I am not sure this is true in the federal system. In fact, USSC data shows that the average age of those committing federal offenses in 2012 was 36 years old. USSC data further shows that, over the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of offenders age 45 and older. (See USSC Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, FY 2012).

Posted by: Zachary B. | Jun 3, 2014 4:12:08 PM

Good points, though I think fraud and CP and other crimes done from a desk are skewing these averages a bit.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 3, 2014 7:33:39 PM

If the average age is 38, then probably many of those affected will be substantially younger. Should they be covered too -- and at what age do you suggest we stop worrying about criminals?

Posted by: Question | Jun 4, 2014 8:27:00 PM

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