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Congressman Bobby Scott

Representing the 3rd District of Virginia

Conyers & Scott Hail Sentencing Commission’s Vote Providing Retroactive Fairness for Low Level Offenders

July 18, 2014
In The News

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug inmates retroactively.  Unless Congress disapproves the amendment, beginning November 1, 2014, eligible inmates can ask courts to reduce their sentences.  Courts will review a number of individualized factors, including public safety, in consideration of whether to grant these reductions.  Inmates whose requests are granted by the courts can be released no earlier than a year later on November 1, 2015, to allow sufficient time for federal judges to closely review the facts and circumstances of each petition that is filed, for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide the necessary transitional services and opportunities to eligible inmates in support of successful reentry into society, and to the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services to prepare for the effective supervision of the releases.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) had written to the United States Sentencing Commission on July 7, 2014 urging this action. The Commission acknowledged their letter, which was considered as the Commission deliberated on this proposal.

After the public announcements, Representatives Conyers and Scott issued the following statement:

“We commend the United States Sentencing Commission’s unanimous vote today that fixes a flaw inherent in the drug sentencing guidelines since 1987, which has resulted in excessive sentences, and applies that fix retroactively to 46,290 currently incarcerated federal drug offenders.  Since 1987, the ‘low end’ of the calculated guideline drug sentence has actually been higher than the mandatory minimum prison term.  As a direct result, as the Commission has recognized, the drug guidelines have been higher-than-necessary for many years.  This amendment would bring federal drug guidelines into line with the mandatory minimums Congress created and is consistent with the Commission’s long and commendable track record of applying fixes to flawed amendments retroactively as it did in 1993 (LSD), 1995 (marijuana), 2007 (crack cocaine), and 2011 (crack cocaine). Justice should not depend on something as arbitrary as the date a person was sentenced, especially when the flaw being corrected has been present since the guidelines’ creation in 1987.

“Just the retroactive application of this amendment is projected to save $2.3 billion.  Our federal prisons are at over 132% overcapacity (and increasing every year).  Drug offenders represent 50% of the current federal prison population and over 66% of the increase in the federal prison population.  While these figures are staggering, the human cost has been even greater.  For decades, the federal ‘War on Drugs’ has been the primary engine of mass incarceration.  Drug convictions alone comprise more than 66% of the increase in our federal prison population.  This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have consistently shown---for decades---that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than Whites.    While national data show that people of all races use drugs at about the same rate, Black and Hispanic men and women are sentenced and imprisoned for federal drug offenses at disproportionately high rates, for virtually every kind of drug. For example, in FY 2013, Blacks and Hispanics comprised almost 75 percent of all federal drug offenders and more than 80 percent of offenders sentenced for powder cocaine, crack cocaine, and heroin offenses. Currently, almost 40 percent of all federal inmates are Black; 35 percent are Hispanic.

“The Commission’s historic vote today also seeks to right this disproportionate racial impact.  According to the Commission’s own retroactivity impact analysis, almost 75% of the people eligible for retroactive application of the ‘drugs minus two’ amendment are Black or Hispanic.  This action builds on the progress that the Judiciary Committee began, in the 111th Congress, in passing the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce the arbitrary disparity in drug sentencing.

“To be clear, retroactive application will not jeopardize public safety as there are no automatic sentence reductions.  Courts will review each motion for sentence reduction presented to it and, when merited, deny retroactive sentence reductions to offenders who pose a danger to public safety, as they have previously done for other drug amendments.  Moreover, an inmate’s criminal history is already included in the guidelines calculation and the judge’s consideration and imposition of the sentence, including any enhancement or upward departure or variance.  Thus, the sentence the offender is serving is already calibrated to reflect and account for prior criminal records.  A retroactive reduction without restriction would be a reduction from a sentence that has already been increased due to criminal history.

“We commend the United States Sentencing Commission for unanimously voting to apply  for taking this historic first step, but in doing so we also call on Congress to lead the way for the United States to see lasting criminal justice reform. While this retroactive amendment to the advisory sentence guidelines offers relief to 46,290 inmates and to those who will be sentenced in the future, this amendment does not help those whose sentences were statutorily increased by mandatory minimums, enhancements, and consecutive counts.  To put this into perspective, in fiscal year 2012, 60% of federal drug defendants were convicted of offenses carrying mandatory penalties of some kind---oftentimes with several mandatory penalties at once.  To repair the damage caused by the unjust system of mandatory sentencing---the primary engine of mass incarceration in the federal system----Congress must work to eliminate or greatly reduce mandatory sentencing provisions, and restore judge’s discretion to avoid disproportionate sentences when mandatory penalties are charged. Again and again studies show that mandatory sentences discriminate against minorities, are ineffective at preventing crime, are inefficient from a cost perspective, and often require judges to impose sentences that violate commonsense. For these reasons, we have a moral obligation to put an end to mandatory sentencing and pass laws with proportional penalties that make sense. Only then will justice truly be restored to an American criminal system gone awry.  Repealing or reducing mandatory penalties will not only provide the more proportionate sentences that eligible offenders---particularly those of color---should have received to begin with, but also restore these offenders to their communities and families sooner, strengthening communities---particularly those of color---and increasing the perception – and reality – that the justice in our system applies equally to everyone, irrespective of race.”

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