Sentencing guidelines

  • March 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst at Open Society Foundations

    I have spent over 25 years working on criminal justice reform issues and the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, co-hosted by an unlikely alliance of Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan, was absolutely colossal. Who would have imagined that a huge hotel ballroom would be packed as early as 8:00 a.m. with federal and local legislators, high administration officials, policy experts, criminologists, researchers, faith leaders, academicians, formerly incarcerated people and millennials – all from both sides of the aisle? The event was an ambitious undertaking – a full day jam-packed with featured presentations, panel workshops, video presentations, and luncheon keynote conversations, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal all sharing their words of wisdom on criminal justice reform. Democratic Members of Congress spoke at the Summit in person, and Republican Members, along with President Barak Obama, made remarks via video. 

    As I sat in the audience, I reflected that criminal justice was no longer the lightening rod it was two decades ago, thanks to a more recent, huge paradigm shift.  Twenty years ago, Republicans and Democrats alike were horrible on criminal justice issues.  Candidate Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a mentally challenged man in Arkansas. Every year or so during the early 90s we fought against unwieldy omnibus crime bills, culminating in the “granddaddy” of all the crime bills – the Violent Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1994.  This bill expanded the federal death penalty to a level unprecedented in modern times, gutted habeas corpus reform, eviscerated the exclusionary rule, allowed for the prosecutions of 13-year olds as adults, and refused to address the crack/powder sentencing disparity, while implementing a slew of additional mandatory minimum sentences and offering monetary incentives to states to lock up more and more people for longer periods of time in exchange for loads of money to build more prisons. 

  • March 20, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Christopher R. Poulos, President, ACS University of Maine School of Law Student Chapter; Chair, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program Subcommittee, City of Portland, Maine.

    The United States now has more incarcerated citizens both in raw numbers and per capita than any other nation on Earth.  Over two million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, up from around 200,000 as recently as 1975.  The vast majority of prisoners are economically disadvantaged and lack college degrees, and many did not graduate from high school.  The number of minorities incarcerated, particularly black males, is disproportionately larger than their percentage of the general population.  Liberals – and now conservatives, including the Koch brothers and Newt Gingrich – are finally calling attention to the long ignored issue of mass incarceration.  The current focus on this matter by both ends of the political spectrum makes this a ripe time for positive change.

    One way to immediately begin addressing the daunting issue of criminal justice reform generally – and mass incarceration specifically – is to divert eligible low-level offenders away from the criminal justice process entirely.  The program is called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), and one of its many objectives is to transform and transcend the relationship between police and the residents they serve into something more positive and less adversarial.  The idea began in Seattle and has also taken root in Santa Fe.  

  • February 17, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project; author of Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies and Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States (co-authored with Marc Mauer).

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    Between 2007 and 2009, black men received federal sentences that were 14 percent longer than those for white men with similar arrest offenses, criminal histories and other prior characteristics.  In their Yale Law Journal article, Sonja B. Starr and M. Marit Rehavi show that prosecutors – not judges – have been the “dominant procedural sources of disparity.”  This is because prosecutors were twice as likely to charge black defendants with offenses that carried mandatory minimum sentences than otherwise-similar whites.  Similar patterns emerge at the state level.  Mandatory minimum sentences have therefore not eliminated sentencing disparities by standardizing judicial decisions as some had hoped.  Instead, mandatory minimums have merely transferred power from judges to prosecutors.

    In my recent report with The Sentencing Project, I outline the major sources of racial disparity in criminal justice outcomes and highlight recent initiatives for targeting these inequities.  Racially biased use of discretion – not just among prosecutors, but also police officers, judges and potentially even public defenders – is just one source of racial disparity in sentencing.

    A second cause is ostensibly race-neutral policies and laws that have a disparate racial impact. For example, drug-free school zone laws mandate sentencing enhancements for people caught selling drugs near school zones.  The expansive geographic range of these zones coupled with high urban density has disproportionately affected residents of urban areas, and particularly those in high-poverty areas – who are largely people of color. A study in New Jersey found that 96% of persons subject to these enhancements in that state were African American or Latino. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of drug-free school zone law.

  • October 31, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Happy Halloween from ACS! Here is your daily roundup of legal news from around the web:

    Ed Pilkington discusses in The Guardian the troubling story of a “born and raised” Texan who will not be allowed to participate in the upcoming elections because of a Texas voter ID law. “What’s happening here is that the state of Texas is using tax dollars consciously to suppress their own voters. It’s absolutely about intimidation,” explains Abbie Kamin of the Campaign Legal Center in the story.

    In Slate, John Paul Rollert looks at how Justice Sonia Sotomayor pushes the other Supreme Court justices past their comfort zones.

    Ronald J. Sheehy argues in Salon that the Supreme Court has created a system in which the impact of institutional racism is ignored.

    The New York Review of Books features a story from Jed S. Rakoff on the problem of plea bargaining in the U.S. criminal justice system.

    Nina Totenberg questions in NPR the claim of the Justice Department that it can cut off internet or cable and then pose as repairmen to search a home.

  • September 17, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Congratulations to Mary L. Bonauto, member of the ACS Boston Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors, and Jonathan Rapping, member of the ACS Georgia Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors, on their selection as a 2014 MacArthur Fellow (commonly known as the MacArthur Genius award).

    Happy Constitution Day! Dahlia Lithwick of Slate examines the holiday and whether the celebration is itself unconstitutional.

    In The New York Times, Adam Liptak previews an upcoming Supreme Court case that examines the privacy of statements made during jury deliberations.

    Brian Bakst of The Associated Press reports on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent comments that a ruling on same-sex marriage from the U.S. Court for the Sixth Circuit could influence when the Supreme Court weighs in.

    In The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin explores how the standard of “undue burden” is disappearing from abortion rights debates and cases.