Sentencing Guidelines

  • June 21, 2012
    Guest Post
    Born Ready
    The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias
    Dave Ungrady

    By Dave Ungrady, an author and journalist

    David Dickerson faced an unprecedented dilemma. The deadly and devastating floods from Hurricane Katrina threatened to flush away his first season as a college head basketball coach at Tulane University. His team was forced to relocate for the season to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, some 400 miles away. How could Dickerson convince his players to stay with a program treading water even before Katrina hit (Tulane finished 10-18 the previous season). How could a coach who barely knew his players convince them to suck it up and commit to playing for a team that had just one winning season in its previous five?

    Dickerson thought about Len Bias. He told his players about how he sucked it up and stayed with Maryland’s program for three trying years after Bias died. “I told them the story about not transferring and weathering the storm, and look where it got me,” he told me when I wrote my recent book Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias.

     “Without that story, I think I would have lost half my team. They had to remain loyal to a coach who hadn’t recruited anyone on that team. I told them what happened and what type of player Bias was. I told them he was the best player I played with or against, or saw during my coaching career. The Len Bias story was the catch to get their attention, to get guys to be loyal, maintaining the course and yes, there will be some ups and downs, tragedies here and there.”

    Dickerson’s story of resilience is one of the more powerful accounts from Maryland players who were on the team when Bias died on June 19, 1986 from cocaine intoxication. Each year around this time, many reflect on the significance of his death, how Congress overreacted and within four months pushed through the 1986 Anti Drug Abuse Act. Within a decade, a high percentage of young black men overcrowded prisons with prison sentences that stretched two and three decades, victims of a sentencing disparity that harshly punished crack criminals. The law spawned a period of activism calling for sentencing reform, led by such advocacy groups as the American Constitution Society, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Open Society Foundation.

    Bias’s death convinced teenagers and adults alike about the perils of drug abuse. If Len Bias died from cocaine, so can I, they suddenly thought. Cocaine was no longer considered a recreational drug that altered lives. It was now considered a potential killer.

  • May 30, 2012

    by Nicole Flatow

    When it comes to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, judges’ hands are tied. Prosecutors, on the other hand, have discretion to implement the law, and a New York federal judge is calling on the Department of Justice to start using that discretion to curb the mass overuse of minimum sentences.

    “This case illustrates how mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences,” writes U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in a recent opinion accompanying the sentencing of low-level offender Jamel Dossie, whom Gleeson had no choice but to sentence to five years in prison.

    As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak points out in a column highlighting the opinion, Gleeson is no softy on crime. In fact, he led the team of prosecutors that sentenced John J. Gotti to life in prison.

    But mandatory minimums, Gleeson writes in the opinion, do not just capture the managers and strategists that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 intended to punish. The ADAA, enacted after the overdose of college basketball star Len Bias, now ensnares some 74 percent of crack defendants, including many “low-level, substance abusing defendants” like Jamel Dossie, whose role in several drug deals was simply to ferry money between the buyer and the dealer.

  • May 24, 2012
    Willie Mays Aikens
    Safe at Home
    Gregory Jordan

    By Gregory Jordan, an author and journalist

    I remember standing with Willie Mays Aikens outside his halfway house in a hardscrabbled  corner of Kansas City as night fell in June 2009. I was there to write a book about his life; he was merely trying to make sorts of his life. He would be late for sign-in in two minutes, but showed no urge to rush. He never rushed - his innate cool and Southern style made rushing inconceivable. But that night he seemed unnerved. Not nervous – never that, either. But unnerved at how he would provide for the woman who would soon be his wife, for a daughter at an expensive college, and for her younger sister who had her eyes set on other expensive colleges.

    He was an ex-con, a month out of the slammer after learning the hard way what mandatory minimum sentencing is, and he had been offered a job on a road crew fixing potholes. He had two bad hips, two bad knees, an empty bank account, and a used car that broke down every other day. But he also had something he hadn’t had in over 14 years: freedom. And one more thing: spiritual cleanliness. He was not only drug free, not only did he have that cursed addiction tucked in under his hat where it belonged, but he also had what he called “a spiritual life.” He correlated it with God and churchgoing; I equated it with his boundless hope and joy. 

    As I walked him up the steps of the big brick building that night, I looked at my watch. He walked through the swinging doors, signed in, and the second hand on my wristwatch hit twelve as he put down the pen. 9 p.m. on the nose, and Mr. Cool Faith Hope Joy was heading to his bunk bed.

    I walked to my rental car, and thought: if I were a betting man, I’d bet on him. He wants it. He can taste it. Even though they set him up and locked him up and came close to throwing away the key, he had somehow corrected himself. Not cured himself, but set a right and steady course, destination pending.

  • April 18, 2012

    by Nicole Flatow

    During Supreme Court oral argument yesterday on whether the law that reduced the disparity in crack/powder cocaine sentencing should be applied to those already convicted, Justice Sonia Sotomayor honed in on the discriminatory history that led to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act.  

    “I always thought that when discrimination was at issue, that we should do as speedy a remedy as we could, because it is one of the most fundamental tenets of our Constitution, as has been  repeatedly emphasized in case after case, that our laws  should be -- should be enforced in a race-neutral way,” she said.

    She added: “I've been a judge for nearly 20 years, and I don't know that there's one law that has created more controversy or more discussion about its racial impact than this one.”

    The 2010 law did not eliminate the disparity between those convicted of crack offenses and those convicted of powder cocaine offenses, but it did drastically reduce the ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. Before the law was passed, the penalties for crack cocaine were “the harshest ever adopted by the U.S. Congress” and 79 percent of defendants in crack cocaine cases in 2010 were African American, the Sentencing Project’s Kara Gotsch explains in a recent American Constitution Society Issue Brief on the Fair Sentencing Act’s passage.

    She writes:

  • December 22, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Ezekiel Edwards and Emma Andersson. Edwards is the Director and Andersson is a staff attorney for the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project.

    The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) is actually only kind of fair. The passage of the 2010 law, which reduced the crack to powder mandatory minimum ratio in federal cocaine sentences from 100:1 to 18:1, was a significant step in the direction of fairness. While we applaud this change, we also look forward to the day when Congress adopts the actually fair ratio of 1:1. In the meantime, the Supreme Court has granted certiorari on two FSA cases, Hill v. United States and Dorsey v. United States, both out of the Seventh Circuit. In these cases, the Court will decide whether people whose offense predates the enactment of the FSA but who were sentenced afterwards should be sentenced based on the old 100:1 ratio or the new 18:1 ratio. If the Court rules the wrong way, a sizeable class of people will be excluded from Congress’ attempt to restore fairness and racial neutrality to federal cocaine sentencing, and the kind-of-Fair Sentencing Act will become even less fair.