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June 7, 2020

An initial list of federal sentencing reforms to advance greater equity and justice for congressional consideration

According to this recent Hill article, headlined "Pelosi: Democrats to unveil sweeping criminal justice proposal Monday," a federal criminal justice bill is in the works that may go beyond police reforms.  Here are the basics:

Democrats on Monday will introduce wide-ranging legislation designed to combat racial inequities in the criminal justice system, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Thursday.  The much awaited package, currently being crafted by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), will feature provisions designed to eliminate racial profiling, rein in the excessive use of police force and repeal the so-called qualified immunity doctrine for law enforcers, which protects individual officers from lawsuits over actions they perform while on duty.

"We will not relent until that is secured — that justice is secured," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.  Yet the package will go far beyond that, Pelosi suggested.... Aside from the criminal justice elements of the Democrats' legislation, Pelosi said the package would also include provisions designed to raise the status of African Americans outside of the criminal justice system as well. "It is about other injustices, too. It's about health disparities, it's about environmental injustice, it's about economic injustice, it's about educational injustice," Pelosi said. 

This Politico piece suggests the developing bill is primarily focused on police reforms.  But if Congress has an interest, as I think it should, in broader criminal justice reforms to advance greater equity and justice, I have many suggestions.  Let's get started with some basic federal sentencing reforms:

1. Equalize crack and powder cocaine sentencing (finally!) Based on data showing huge unfair disparities, the US Sentencing Commission in 1995 (a full quarter century ago!) sent to Congress proposed guidelines changes to fix the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity by adopting a 1:1 quantity ratio at the powder cocaine level.  But Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation rejecting the USSC’s proposed guideline changes (see basics here and here), thereby ensuring decades of disproportionately severe crack sentences and extreme racial inequities in cocaine offense punishments.

Barack Obama gave a 2007 campaign speech assailing the crack/powder disparity, and in 2009 the Obama Justice Department advocated for "Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity."  Sadly, despite strong DOJ advocacy for a 1:1 ratio in April 2009, it still took Congress more than a year to enact any reform to the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity, and then it only could muster a partial reduction in crack sentences rather than the parity advocated by the USSC in 1995 and by DOJ in 2009.  Specifically, the Fair Sentencing Act enshrined a bew 18:1 crack/powder quantity disparity ratio into federal drug sentencing statutes and guidelines, and even this modest reform did not become fully retroactive until eight years later with the FIRST STEP Act.

As the USSC said in 1995 and as DOJ recognized in 2009, crack cocaine and powder cocaine are functionally the same drug save for the fact that Blacks are far more likely to be prosecuted federally for the former.  The crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity has long been the most tangible and consequential example of structural sentencing racism, and the Minnesota Supreme Court decades ago found a lesser disparity to be unconstitutional under its state constitution.  This ugly stain still impacting thousands of Black federal defendants needs to be wiped out once and for all.

2. Repeal federal mandatory minimumsEven before its important work highlighting racial biases in the application of federal cocaine penalties, the USSC began noting the racial inequities in the application of federal mandatory minimum statutes.  In its 1991 report, the USSC noted early data showing "disparate application of mandatory minimum sentences [which] appears to be related to the race of the defendant, where whites are more likely than non-whites to be sentenced below the applicable mandatory minimum."  In its 2011 report, the USSC again documented with copious data the various ways that the effects of severe mandatory minimum sentencing provisions "fall on Black offenders to a greater degree than on offenders in other racial groups."

One need not rely on USSC data to see clear evidence of racial disparities in the application of federal mandatory minimum.  M. Marit Rehavi and Sonja B. Starr found that federal prosecutors are almost twice as likely to file charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences against Black defendants.  Similarly, Crystal Yang found that "Black offenders are far more likely to be charged with mandatory minimums than similar white offenders, and after Booker, black defendants are significantly more likely to face mandatory minimums that exceed their Guidelines minimum compared to white defendants."

Critically, mandatory minimums have all sorts of flaws, both in theory and in practice, that justify their repeal on a number of bases beyond advancing greater racial equity.  But, as is too often the case throughout criminal justice systems, a bad law for everyone often gets applied in a way that is especially inequitable and unjust for people of color.  All federal mandatory minimums ought to be repealed.

3. Create a federal expungement statute. Having a criminal record severely limits access to employment, education, housing, civic engagement, and public assistance.  As highlighted by a recent US Commission on Civil Rights report on collateral consequences, "People of color are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced more harshly than are white people, which amplifies the impact of collateral consequences on this population."

An encouraging recent study by Sonja B. Starr and J.J. Prescott involving expungements in Michigan over the course of decades found that expungement recipients had extremely low subsequent crime rates and saw a sharp upturn in wages and employment levels.  Sounds like a win-win, and ever more states are each year expanding and enhancing mechanisms for record relief.  But there is currently no general federal expungement or record sealing statute, and federal courts have no inherent authority to expunge records.  Congress should again follow the wise lead of the states by creating a robust expungement statute ASAP.

Critically, these three suggestions are really just low-hanging fruit for criminal justice reforms in the sentencing space that would obviously and easily advance greater equity and justice for all.  There are plenty of other important structural changes I would also like to see in the name of racial justice ranging from eliminating all felon disenfranchisement to decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana and lots more in between.  Indeed, any kind of wise criminal justice reform is likely to serve as a kind of racial justice reform given the consistently biased operation of our justice systems.  But for now, I will be content to advocate for these three reforms and encourage others to use the comments to indicate what they consider the most urgent forms of reform in this arena.

June 7, 2020 at 08:20 PM | Permalink

Comments

Interesting that they don't address marijuana decriminalization. Depending on your source - there may be as many as 600,000 arrests for marijuana per year.

These arrests are the low hanging fruit and frequently the first interaction of disadvantaged youth with the criminal justice system. Nonviolent marijuana offenders serving egregious sentences cannot fathom the continued acceptance of the cannabis industry.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 7, 2020 8:42:42 PM

How about addressing the unwarranted guideline disparity between ice meth and non-ice meth?

Posted by: Meth | Jun 8, 2020 12:47:55 PM

Your suggested reforms are constructive and rational. Those reforms are of absolutely no interest to Nancy Pelosi. She's too busy virtue signalling and race baiting.

Posted by: restless94110 | Jun 8, 2020 2:32:05 PM

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