Pubdate: Sat, 29 Dec 2007
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2007 Times Argus
Bookmark: (Sentencing - United States)


When the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted recently to allow
retroactive reconsideration of some drug convictions, it was wisely
chipping away at the edifice of injustice put in place as part of the
nation's war on drugs.

The commission is the federal agency that sets sentencing guidelines
for the federal courts. The commission is part of the judicial branch,
but its actions are not immune to the pressures and constraints of
politics. Its members are appointed by the president and confirmed by
the Senate, and if the guidelines it promulgates clash too
dramatically with the preferred policies of the administration in
power or of the party in control of Congress, commission members could
feel the heat.

Democratic control of the Senate has allowed the commission greater
room to maneuver in bringing moderation to the federal judiciary's
sentencing policies. If Republicans controlled the Senate, commission
members might have refrained from incurring senatorial wrath by taking
the actions they announced.

The commission's decision was intended to address the wide disparity
between penalties imposed for powder and crack cocaine. This disparity
took hold following the crack epidemic of the late 1980s when the
prevalent view was that crack was a far more virulent form of cocaine.
Since then, experts have changed their mind about the relative dangers
of crack and powder cocaine.

And yet because crack became most popular among African-Americans, the
severe penalties imposed for crack offenses have taken a major toll in
African-American communities. Critics have long denounced the racial
bias inherent in a policy that imposes a 10-year minimum for
possession of relatively small amounts of crack.

The commission's ruling means that, as of March next year, prisoners
may petition for their sentences to be reduced by 17 percent. That
means that about 3,800 convicts may be eligible for early release next
year. In all about 19,500 prisoners may be eligible for earlier release.

One of the vice chairmen of the commission is Judge William Sessions,
the U.S. District Court judge from Vermont, who was appointed to the
commission by President Clinton. Sessions has been a supporter of the
effort to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine
sentences. As he told The New York Times, "At its core, the question
is one of fairness. This is an historic day. This system of justice
is, and must always be, colorblind."

It is time for the hysteria of the nation's war on drugs to subside.
Judge Ruben Castillo, another commission member, told The Times, "No
one has come before us to justify the 100-to-1 ratio." He was
referring to the disparity between crack and powder cocaine: It took
only 50 grams of crack to earn a 10-year sentence; it took 5,000 grams
of powder to earn the same sentence.

The harm of drugs, and of the crime associated with drugs, is real
enough without demagogues demanding punitive, racist penalties that
multiply the harm to families and communities. The Sentencing
Commission has taken welcome steps to redress that harm.
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