Pubdate: Thu, 13 Mar 2008
Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Rutland Herald


New sentencing guidelines mean that a handful of  convicted drug
dealers may spend less time in prison  than their earlier sentences
might have indicated. Some  of these inmates had done business in the
Rutland  region, and their potential release may be raising  alarms.

But the new guidelines do not represent a sudden  surrender on drugs.
Rather, they mean that our drug  laws are not as warped as they were
by inequities  caused by racism. Convicted drug dealers do time in
prison, and then they are released. The new guidelines  bring greater
fairness to the duration of the inmates'  imprisonment.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission modified federal  sentencing guidelines
last year because of the  disparate treatment of defendants accused of
dealing  crack cocaine and powder cocaine. A defendant caught  with
crack could have received a sentence equivalent to  the sentence for
someone with 100 times the amount of  powder cocaine. In other words,
a smalltime crack  dealer could receive a sentence appropriate for a
big-time powder cocaine dealer.

Because crack has been more prevalent among  African-Americans,
critics have charged that the  disparity in sentencing was motivated
by racism, or at  least that its effect was to subject
African-Americans  to unduly harsh treatment. The Sentencing
Commission  has been urging Congress to change the law, but that
hasn't happened. Instead, the commission changed its  guidelines, and
it applied those changes retroactively.

That means that people already serving time because of  drug
convictions can apply to the court to have their  sentences reduced in
accordance with the new  guidelines. That has raised the prospect that
some of  about 24 inmates now in federal prison on crimes  committed
in Vermont might see their sentences reduced  by a few months or years.

For example, Demetrius Collins was convicted of dealing  crack cocaine
in Rutland in 2003, and he received a  sentence of 20 years. The new
guidelines might reduce  that sentence by from one to four years.
Collins has  applied to federal court for a sentence reduction.

If the price of fairness is to reduce a 20-year  sentence to a
sentence of 16 to 19 years, it is a price  the people of Vermont and
the United States can pay. It  is a hefty sentence in any event.

Federal prosecutors wanted to make sure that the judges  looking at
the resentencing cases would examine the  circumstances of each
inmate. For example, the  prosecutor argued that an inmate from
Bennington,  Christopher Main, not receive a reduced sentence  because
of a long history of violence, robbery and  dealing of heavy drugs.

Fair enough. Each case should be considered on its  merits. The new 
guidelines allow judges greater freedom  to determine sentences 
without an arbitrary requirement  that hits one racial group harder 
than others. Vermont  needs to remain vigilant against drug dealers 
here to  exploit the vulnerabilities of young Vermonters. It  needs 
to do so in ways now broadly accepted in Vermont:  a combination of 
prevention, enforcement, and  treatment.

Racially biased sentencing guidelines have no place in  the battle to
contain the harm of drugs. Judge William  B. Sessions III, a federal
judge in Vermont who is vice  chairman of the Sentencing Commission,
has had a role  in bringing greater sanity to the federal guidelines.
The nation gains from those changes by bringing greater  justice to
the justice system.
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