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January 31, 2018

Spotlighting prisoners still stuck in federal prison because of absence of retroactive application of Fair Sentencing Act

Kara Gosch has this new Washington Post commentary headlined "Thousands are stuck in prison — just because of the date they were sentenced." Here are excerpts:

Eugene Downs sits in federal prison years longer than justice demands.  On Aug. 2, 2010, Downs was sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for conspiring to distribute at least 50 grams of crack cocaine.  The very next day, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, a law that limited mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and the number of cases subject to them.

If Downs had been sentenced one day later, he would now be free, because the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentence for distribution of 50 grams of crack cocaine to five years.  Incidentally, Downs’s co-defendants were all sentenced after Aug. 2 and benefited from the lowered penalties.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled there is nothing it can do to help Downs....

Thanks to efforts from civil rights and criminal-justice-reform organizations, the Obama administration signed onto the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the drug quantity ratio between powder and crack cocaine that triggers the mandatory minimums from 100-1 to 18-1.  The law’s disparity is still unjustified, but the 2010 reform was a big step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the law failed to account for people already in prison under the outdated penalties. According to a document generated by the Sentencing Commission for Congress, 3,147 people could benefit from retroactivity of the law. Eight-nine percent of these prisoners are black. Eugene Downs, who is African American, is just one of them.

Legislation to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively has garnered bipartisan support in Congress. In 2015, the Judiciary committees in both the House and the Senate approved legislation that would have made Downs eligible for early release. Unfortunately, election-season politics and demagoguery from a handful of Republicans, including then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, doomed the bill.

There is some hope: Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) reintroduced the proposal last year with reforms that would reduce sentences for an even greater number of low-level drug offenses. Many of those provisions would be made retroactive. House Republicans have yet to reintroduce a similar bill in their chamber, but Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has put criminal-justice reform on his list of priorities for 2018.

Still, President Trump has not indicated that he shares in the bipartisan enthusiasm for sentencing reform. While he recently convened a White House meeting with governors and conservative allies to extol the virtues of second chances and rehabilitation, his decision to put Sessions in charge of the Justice Department is not promising.

In any case, the retroactive application of the reformed sentencing laws should be an exception for “tough on crime” crusaders. Sometimes unfair laws punish people who deserve a second chance. We cannot allow the random day on which people are sentenced to prison be their primary obstacle to justice.

Regular readers surely know I am deeply sympathetic to the concept of giving broad retroactive effect to ameliorative changes in sentencing laws.  But the story of Eugene Downs strike me a bit peculiar in this context because, as noted in 2010 posts here and here, the Fair Sentencing Act was approved by both houses of Congress on July 28, 2010 and received plenty of media attention on July 29, 2010.   Arguably, one could blame Prez Obama for Eugene Downs' fate because he waited a week to sign the FSA.  Perhaps more properly, one should probably blame an attorney for Eugene Downs' fate for failing to seek a sentencing continuance in light of a pending critical legal change.

January 31, 2018 at 04:31 PM | Permalink

Comments

Sound to me that those stuck in this spot have every moral and constitutional right to consider the sentence illegal and leave however they have to and over anyone dumb enough to stand in their way

Posted by: Rodsmith3510 | Jan 31, 2018 11:31:10 PM

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