“Sentencing Commission in sweeping review of prison terms for drug dealers”

August 16, 2013

The Guardian on August 15, 2013 released the following:

By: Dan Roberts in Washington

“The US Sentencing Commission has voted unanimously to begin a sweeping review of federal sentences for drug dealers in a move that could herald long-awaited reductions in America’s prison population.

Just days after attorney general Eric Holder called for a new approach to the so-called “war on drugs”, the commission met in Washington to agree a new policy priority that potentially goes far further than the Department of Justice can in lowering sentences.

As anticipated, the independent government agency, which issues sentencing guidelines to federal judges, will now spend the next few weeks reviewing its “drug quantity table” – the grid that determines prison lengths for dozens of different categories of offence – before publishing new recommendations in January.

A reduction in sentencing guidelines could still be blocked by Congress, but Holder’s speech on Monday has coincided with a new mood of reform in Washington that reverses decades of political pressure to increase penalties for drug dealers. His comments were welcomed by Senate judiciary committee chair Patrick Leahy and leading Republicans such as senator Rand Paul.

Currently the guidelines in the commission’s drug quantity table can result in first-time offenders facing sentences of 19 to 24 years, with no parole, for possession of the maximum quantities of heroin, crack or methamphetamine. Even dealers caught with 100g of cocaine can face between 27 and 33 months, according to the table.

A number of specific offences are also subject to mandatory minimum sentences prescribed by Congress, although Holder instructed US prosecutors on Monday to begin circumventing such automatic terms by changing the way they bring charges.

The seven commissioners who voted on the sentencing panel, including five senior judges, are now thought likely to go much further than this by formulating across-the-board changes to the recommended sentences.

Speaking afterwards, Dabney Friedrich, a former associate counsel in the Bush White House who sits on the commission, told the Guardian she thought that pressure in Congress to control the cost of the US prison system would be a key factor in ensuring political support for such a move.

The Department of Justice also issued a supportive statement on Thursday, which welcomed the commission’s progress.

“As the attorney general expressed earlier this week, we think there is much to be done to improve federal sentencing and corrections,” said DOJ official Jonathan Wroblewski. “Moreover, we think the US Sentencing Commission has a very big role to play in shaping that reform.”

In a statement issued after its meeting, the commission noted that drug offenders account for nearly half of all federal inmates, and that “an adjustment to the drug quantity tables in the sentencing guidelines could have a significant impact on sentence lengths and prison populations.”

“With a growing crisis in federal prison populations and budgets, it is timely and important for us to examine mandatory minimum penalties and drug sentences, which contribute significantly to the federal prison population,” added Judge Patti Saris, chair of the commission.

“The Commission is looking forward to a serious and thoughtful reconsideration of some of the sentencing guidelines which most strongly impact the federal criminal justice system,” she said. “I am glad that members of Congress from both parties and the Attorney General are
engaged in similar efforts.”

The Commission also pledged to work with Congress to reduce the “severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding the ‘safety valve’ statute which exempts certain low-level non-violent
offenders from mandatory minimum penalties”. It will pass its final amendments to Congress in May.

Political reaction to the recent sentencing developments has been broadly positive. Senator Leahy said was pleased at Holder’s call for a review of mandatory minimum sentences.

Although he believes long sentences are appropriate in some cases, but the veteran Democrat said it believes judges should be given more flexibility rather than relying on mandatory requirements.

Others have expressed concern however at the new mood sweeping Washington.

William Otis, a former federal prosecutor at Georgetown University, said stiffer sentences in recent decades had contributed to lower crime rates.

“Two generations ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, our country had the wholly discretionary sentencing system Holder admires. For our trouble, we got a national crime wave,” he wrote in a USA Today op-ed.

“We have every right to instruct judges that some offenses are just too awful to allow an overly sympathetic jurist to burst through a congressionally established floor.””


Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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New rules slashing crack cocaine sentences go into effect

November 2, 2011

CNN on November 2, 2011 released the following:

“By Carol Cratty, CNN

Washington (CNN) — For thousands of prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine charges, the prison doors will be opening early, thanks to sentencing changes easing the disparity between the penalties for possessing or distributing crack vs. powder cocaine.

Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, changing the 100-to-1 disparity between minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine to 18 to 1. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted this summer to make the reduced crack penalties retroactive, which means more than 12,000 current inmates are eligible to request reduced sentences.

The retroactivity took effect Tuesday. The Sentencing Commission estimates that inmates will have an average of three years chopped off their sentences. An estimated 1,800 inmates became eligible for release immediately because they had already served enough time, and prosecutors did not object to their release.

Critics of the old sentencing system say it was unfair to African-Americans, who make up the majority of those convicted of possessing and distributing crack.

“This really has been one of the great stains on our federal criminal justice system for 20 years or more,” said Michael Nachmanoff, the federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. “This disparity between the punishment for crack cocaine and powder was really unjustified.”

Nachmanoff noted under the old guidelines someone who had just 5 grams of crack cocaine would receive a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. But someone would have to have 500 grams of powdered cocaine to receive a similar sentence.

Nachmanoff’s district is believed to have the largest number of people in the country — between 800 and 900 people — who might benefit from the reduced sentencing guidelines on crack. He said 75 of his clients were expected to be released on the first day of retroactivity.

“A lot of people have been sitting in jail for a long time not because they didn’t commit crimes, but because the punishment they faced was too harsh and unjustified compared to other people who had committed similar crimes in similar ways,” Nachmanoff told CNN. He said reduced sentences will not be automatic. Judges must review the cases and determine whether an early release of an inmate represents a danger to the community.

William Johnson, a Virginia man convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 1997, was one of those released Tuesday. “It’s unbelievable. I’m ecstatic,” Johnson told CNN.” The 39-year-old father of four said he only found out Monday he would be released the next day.

Under the terms of his original sentence, he would have been eligible for release in October 2018, and that sentence was reduced a few years ago so that his revised release date was June 2014.

Johnson, who identified himself as an African-American, said there seemed to be a racial component to the different sentences given out in the past for crack and powder cocaine, but he said he wouldn’t describe himself as bitter.

“I don’t have time for it,” said Johnson. He said he’s concentrating on catching up with family members and making plans to go into business cleaning office buildings.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums has fought for changes in mandatory cocaine penalties for years.

“Most mandatory sentences are so high and so rigid that judges can’t get around them, so people are going to prison for extraordinarily long times, way beyond what they need to learn their lessons,” said FAMM spokeswoman Julie Stewart.

But even with the changes, there is still an 18-to-1 disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Nachmanoff said now a person with crack will have to have 28 grams before triggering a mandatory five-year minimum sentence. But the person with powder cocaine still must have a much larger amount — at least 500 grams.

“Ultimately the right answer is 1 to 1, and people in the law enforcement community and the criminal justice system recognize that,” said Nachmanoff. “But that just means that there’s still more work to do.””


To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Crimes Watch Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.