February 19, 2008


Mandatory, Minimum, and Misguided: On crack-sentencing guidelines, the Justice Department is doing what it can to keep the Reaganites' must-punish mania alive." (Niko Karvounis, February 15, 2008, Mother Jones)

Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert warned that shorter crack-cocaine sentences will cause a "loss of the public's trust and confidence in our criminal justice system"—a possibility that is only slightly less troubling than Attorney General Michael Mukasey's claim that reduced sentences will mean that "1,600 convicted crack dealers, many of them violent gang members, will be eligible for immediate release into communities nationwide."

These statements are scare tactics aimed at reversing a decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency responsible for setting sentencing rules in the federal courts, which has pegged March 3 as the first day federal prisoners doing time for crack offenses are eligible to petition for reduced sentences. This countdown comes just after the Commission's introduction of less-harsh crack-sentencing standards in November, and the December announcement that this reduction will be applicable to inmates currently incarcerated as well as future offenders. The Justice Department, citing "public safety risks," is trying to overturn the rule. But giving inmates the chance to obtain shorter sentences won't spur a mass prison exodus: Judges will still decide which inmates deserve a reduction and which don't. No one is guaranteed an early release.

As such, there's little practical reason to be alarmed by the Commission's decision. But what may be alarming—at least to the Bush administration—is that other crack-sentencing reforms are also possible. Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) currently has a bill before Congress called the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act, which would eliminate the longstanding disparity in crack-cocaine and cocaine powder sentences, increase funding for drug treatment, and get rid of the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for crack-cocaine possession. It would also increase the amount of crack needed to trigger other mandatory minimums.

Thankfully the Democrats are running featherweights this year--imagine how Bill Clinton would have used this issue against his own party.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2008 8:11 AM

There is something unseemly about the sentencing differences.

Rich white suburban coke heads and dealers get daddy to get them off scott free while black kids go to jail.

If there is a "Sistah Souljah" moment here, it is for McCain to call for the rich little brats to go to jail for five years with the black kids.

But hey, can't go losing the dingbat soccer mom vote now, can we?

Posted by: Bruno at February 19, 2008 9:36 AM

It has nothing to do with race or drugs.

Posted by: oj at February 19, 2008 10:59 AM