Retroactivity and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

From today’s New York Times article “Rules Lower Prison Terms in Sentences for Crack”:

Crack cocaine offenders will receive shorter prison sentences under more lenient federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect yesterday.

The United States Sentencing Commission, a government panel that recommends appropriate federal prison terms, estimated that the new guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by 3,800 in 15 years.

The new guidelines will reduce the average sentence for crack cocaine possession to 8 years 10 months from 10 years 1 month. At a sentencing commission hearing in Washington on Nov. 13, members will consider whether to apply the guidelines retroactively to an estimated 19,500 crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced under the earlier, stricter guidelines.

Given that we’re talking about subtracting one year from the ‘normal’ decade in prison for a federal drug offense, it would make sense to replace the phrase “more lenient” with “less outrageous” in that first sentence. Still, this is a small step in the right direction.

Solomon Moore’s article also touches on the issue of whether or not federal prisoners sentenced under the old guidelines will be able to take advantage of the new rules. In other words, since the U.S. Sentencing Commission has decided that sentences were too long and need to be reduced, will it do you any good if you have already been sentenced unfairly/unreasonably?

The predictable response from the D.O.J. on this issue:

Department of Justice officials said yesterday that applying the new guidelines retroactively would erode federal drug enforcement efforts and undermine Congress’s role in creating sentencing policy.

“The commission is now considering applying the changes retroactively, something that Congress has not suggested in any of the pending bills,” wrote a department spokesman, Peter Carr. “As we state in a letter filed with the commission today, we believe this would be a mistake, having a serious impact on the safety of our communities and impose an unreasonable burden upon our judicial system.”

Wrong, wrong, and, well, at the end of that statement we see the real reason they oppose it.

First, it won’t erode federal drug enforcement efforts… it will be part of the basis of those efforts.

Second, it doesn’t ‘undermine Congress’s role in creating sentencing policy’. The United States Sentencing Commission was set up by Congress. The USSC was created by the Sentencing Reform Act provisions of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984.

You can make a great argument that Congress did a terrible job when it passed those ‘reforms’; but you can’t say it wasn’t the Congress that did it.

Finally, what does D.O.J. mean when it says this will ‘impose an unreasonable burden upon our judicial system’?  Deciphering this will lead us to the real reason D.O.J. opposes making the new guidelines retroactive.

Basically the Federal prosecutor’s office is admitting that it’s too lazy to get things right. Yes, it may average out to ‘only a year’ reduction for those twenty thousand or so that are still incarcerated under the old rules, but each and every one of them has plenty of time to apply to reduce their sentence, and they will do so.

Gosh, that’s just too much work for the Department of ‘Justice’.

Even this argument fails though – I mean, it fails because it has no basis in fact, not just that it’s mean spirited and motivated by sloth. As Denise Cardman, Deputy Director of the American Bar Association wrote:

If the amendment is not made retroactive, the courts will likely be inundated with a large number of pro se filings using various vehicles, such as 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241, 2255, once the amendment goes into effect.  

The same number of motions filed under Section 3582(c) would be a far more orderly and effective manner of managing the inevitable requests for relief, creating “cleaner” and more uniform decisions. 

Indeed, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) provides that the court may reduce the term of imprisonment “on its own motion.” Under this provision, a court could enter a blanket order reducing all sentences imposed under the former guideline. 

Moreover, post-Booker practice demonstrates that the federal criminal justice system is fully capable of revisiting many thousands of sentences when justice so requires.

A blanket order reducing all sentences retroactively will indeed be a much better use of judicial resources than, say, twenty thousand or so pro-se motions.

And, it has the added benefit of… being the right thing to do.

Trackbacks (1) Links to blogs that reference this article Trackback URL
http://blog.austindefense.com/admin/trackback/50535
Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer - November 13, 2007 8:03 AM
Brian Williams had a scare piece on NBC Nightly News last night about the current ‘debate’ at the U.S. Sentencing Commission regarding making the new Federal Sentencing Guidelines for crack cocaine retroactive. (Apologies: the only link I c...
Comments (1) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
John - November 7, 2007 8:17 AM

I would like to point out that all the comments made regarding the "War on Drugs" always do not make any references to the two MOST DANGEROUS and ADDICTIVE drugs on the planet, alcohol and nicotine. The ever increasing technological break-throughs that allow for the mass transmission of information, allow for an excellent platform for the media/government to scare citizens into giving up their Constitutional Rights. These information platforms convenient forget to include the highly addictive nature of alcohol and nicotine, in additional to the severe health risks they cause. In the case of both alcohol and nicotine, these deadly health risks affect both the users and the innocent citizens who are usually in the wrong place and/or time, when they are jeopardized. The "War on Drugs" is really not a "War" but a means to control the supply for the ever-increasing demand. Lastly, I would like to point out the U.K. and their protocols regarding drugs. Decriminalize the only drug that has no medical record of an overdose, marijuana, and tax the drugs that allow people to function, if used in moderation. This is an opinion, but grounded very heavily on medical and historical facts.

Post A Comment / Question Use this form to add a comment to this entry.







Remember personal info?