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December 7, 2016

Recalling the work of AG-designee Senator Jeff Sessions on crack/powder sentencing reform

NA-CM623_SESSIO_16U_20161206163606The Wall Street Journal has this new article flagging the sentencing reform work of Senator Jeff Sessions, who is Prez-Elect Donald Trump's pick to serve as our next Attorney General. The article is headlined "Jeff Sessions, Civil-Rights Groups Find Some Common Ground on Crack Sentencing: Attorney-general pick, targeted for his record on race, advocated for parity in cocaine punishments." Here are excerpts:

Civil-rights groups are set to battle Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general over what they see as his disturbing record on racial equality. But there is one chapter in the former prosecutor’s career where they share a sliver of common ground.

Mr. Sessions was for years Congress’s most avid supporter of cutting the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, at a time when other lawmakers were loath to be seen as soft on crime. There has been a growing consensus that harsh penalties for crack, typically bought and sold on city streets, have taken an undue toll on African-American communities, while black leaders have long viewed the disparity as little short of racist.

To Mr. Sessions’s critics, the issue doesn’t come close to compensating for his career-long opposition to expanding civil-rights protections and reducing mandatory sentences, and more broadly for what they see as a general indifference to issues important to minorities.

But to the Alabama senator’s supporters, it is an overlooked part of a résumé they say is sometimes caricatured. “This was a personal agenda item for him,” said Matt Miner, Mr. Sessions’s former chief counsel. “This law was not calibrated to target serious drug dealers and was disproportionately affecting African-Americans, and it offended him.”

In a rare bipartisan move, Mr. Sessions and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois ultimately struck a deal in 2010 to reduce, though not eliminate, the sentencing disparity. Mr. Sessions hung a copy of the resulting legislation, signed by President Barack Obama, in a prominent spot in his office next to his desk, Mr. Miner said....

In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission tried to put the sentencing guidelines on par, but Congress rejected the proposal. Weeks later, riots broke out in the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., and spread to other federal facilities, an uprising the Bureau of Prisons attributed partly to Congress’s rejection of the cocaine measure. Mr. Sessions, then Alabama’s attorney general, was elected to Congress the following year. His first sentencing bill, in 2001, lowered the sentencing disparity to 20-to-1.

Mr. Sessions declined to comment for this article. But he told The Wall Street Journal at the time that the crack penalties were unfair and in many cases made cities less safe, not more so. On the Senate floor, he cited studies showing that African-Americans made up 84% of defendants sentenced for trafficking crack but only 31% of those sentenced for powder. “The five-gram trigger point for crack that was intended to protect African-Americans has resulted in heavy penalties for African-Americans, penalties that lack a rational basis,” Mr. Sessions said in 2002. He reintroduced the proposal in 2006 and 2007.

The Fair Sentencing Act, ultimately signed into law in 2010, raised the trigger for a five-year sentence to 28 grams of crack and the 10-year trigger to 280 grams of crack. The triggers for powder cocaine remained at 500 and 5,000 grams.

Advocates for criminal-justice changes aren’t expecting much support from Mr. Sessions on some of their other priorities. “It’s not entirely clear why he supported the Fair Sentencing Act,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which worked with Mr. Sessions on the issue for years. Mr. Sessions has opposed efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to investigate law-enforcement agencies accused of violating civil rights.

Others are even more downbeat.

“He has taken positions so diametrically opposed to civil and human rights that there is little hope he would bring the sense of hope and openness he brought to the Fair Sentencing Act to the job of attorney general,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “I consider it a one-off where he could show he was more enlightened and less doctrinaire than some of his colleagues.”

Mr. Henderson’s group is one of 145 organizations that signed a letter opposing Mr. Session’s nomination. The letter cites racially insensitive remarks allegedly made by Mr. Sessions; his unsuccessful prosecution of three black voting-rights activists on fraud charges; his support for voter ID laws that many activists say are designed to tamp down minority voting; and his opposition to a 2009 law expanding federal prosecution of hate crimes....

Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and himself a former offender, said he hopes Mr. Sessions will at least leave discretion to federal prosecutors rather than ordering them to seek maximum penalties. “I’m looking for a silver lining,” he said.

A few prior related posts on Senator Sessions and sentencing reform:

December 7, 2016 at 07:26 PM | Permalink


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