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July 1, 2019

Urging US Sentencing Commission to "undertake a top-to-bottom review" of harsh federal sentencing guidelines

I am very pleased to see US District Judge Lynn Adelman taking to the pages of the Washington Post to pen this new opinion piece under the headline "There’s another tough-on-crime law Democrats should focus their criticism on." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Some of the Democratic presidential candidates have criticized the tough-on-crime legislation enacted during the 1980s and 1990s, arguing that it contributed to the mass incarceration that shames the country today.  The candidates and other critics have focused on the 1994 crime bill, which provided incentives for states to build more prisons and impose longer sentences, and the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established harsh sentences for drug offenses, particularly those involving crack cocaine.

The criticism of these provisions is entirely justified.  But not enough attention has been paid to another 1980s-era tough-on-crime law that is still very much with us, causing substantial unnecessary incarceration, particularly of African Americans and Hispanics: the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act.

Among its “reforms,” the law eliminated parole for federal offenders and created the U.S. Sentencing Commission that then promulgated the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  The act, the commission and the guidelines have been a disaster, and a debate by lawmakers about their status is long overdue.  As a result of the sentencing guidelines, as well as sentencing practices in state courts, the United States is now an outlier not just among democracies but among all nations....

The commission established harsh sentencing guidelines and barred judges from putting defendants on probation except in rare instances.  Over the next 20 years, the commission regularly amended the guidelines, making them even more severe.

The average federal sentence increased from 28 to 50 months afterward and, with the abolition of parole, the average time that a defendant served increased from 13 to 43 months....   Between 1987 and 2019, the federal prison population increased from about 50,000 to 219,000 before dropping to about 180,000.  In 2005, with the landmark decision in United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory feature of the guidelines, giving judges the opportunity to establish a less punitive sentencing regime.  In subsequent decisions, the court made clear that judges had no obligation to follow the guidelines.

Unfortunately, district court judges have largely failed to take advantage of Booker to ameliorate the harshness of the federal sentencing system.  After Booker, judges slightly reduced the length of sentences, from 47.9 months in fiscal 2003, to 44 months in 2018.  Shockingly, the number of offenders receiving prison-only sentences actually increased, from 83.3 percent in fiscal 2003 to 87.8 percent in fiscal 2018.  The sentencing commission could lead the way in pressing judges to take Booker to heart, given the commission’s considerable authority regarding federal sentencing policies, but it has provided little leadership.  For too long, the commission has focused instead on trying to minimize inter-judge disparities in sentencing.

The commissioners might better understand the impact of its policies if they ventured outside Washington and held public hearings in urban and rural America about federal sentencing guidelines.  Hearing firsthand about the devastating effect on families of the United States’ punitive approach, particularly in drug cases, might open some commissioners’ eyes.

Ideally, the commission would then undertake a top-to-bottom review of the guidelines, with an eye toward recommending as many noncustodial sentences as possible and reducing the length of prison sentences.  Putting a dent in federal mass incarceration would set an example for state correctional systems.

In fairness, the commission in recent years has taken some important steps in the right direction.  Particularly significant was its 2014 decision to reduce all drug guidelines by two levels and to make the policy retroactive, thereby reducing sentences for some 32,000 prisoners.  Congress’s recently enacted First Step Act was another move in the right direction, addressing the disparity in punishment for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine. But more needs to be done to reset a system that has done untold harm over the past three decades.  At a minimum, the Sentencing Reform Act should be substantially revised.  Congress was foolish to have abolished parole and should overturn that decision.

This commentary provides a terrific and needed reminder that the Booker decision did not considerably mute the punitive impact of harsh sentencing guidelines (even though I think it has tended to considerably mute the amount of criticism of these guidelines). As mentioned in this post last week, right now the US Sentencing Commission is unable to function fully because it only has two of seven Commissioner slots filled. So "public hearings in urban and rural America" in conjunction with a "top-to-bottom review" of the guidelines cannot really happen unless and until we get a slate of new Commissioners with an interest in such an agenda. I hope this piece gets those folks in the campaigns and on Capitol Hill who are really committed to criminal justice reform to be thinking about the potential that a reform-oriented Commission might have.

July 1, 2019 at 10:52 AM | Permalink

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