The Relevancy and Reach of the U.S. Sentencing Commission

January 19, 2012

ACS and the ACLU hosted The Relevancy and Reach of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. During the height of the War on Drugs, in 1984, the U.S. Sentencing Commission was created. The intent behind the Commission was to provide uniformity to the sentences – many of them drug sentences – that were imposed upon federal criminal offenders. However, instead of eliminating racial and other disparities as intended, the mandatory guidelines perpetuated disparities and took away judicial discretion. Judges’ hands were tied, with many of them forced to render sentences that they felt were unfair and unjust, especially when it came to sentencing for crimes associated with crack cocaine.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed these federal sentencing guidelines in violation of the Sixth Amendment in U.S. v. Booker. While the Commission could continue to advise on proper sentencing, the guidelines would be advisory. In the years that have followed, the Commission has continued to play a prominent role in sentencing, most recently generating attention for its decision this past summer to make federal crack cocaine sentencing guidelines retroactive after the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act. In the wake of this controversial decision, questions surround the Commission, namely, does the Commission remain valid and legitimate in purpose today?

Opening remarks by Kanya Bennett, Director of Programs for Criminal and Civil Justice, American Constitution Society and panel discussion featuring:

  • Moderator, Jesselyn McCurdy, Senior Legislative Counsel, ACLU
  • Honorable Patti B. Saris, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts; Chair, U.S. Sentencing Commission 
  • Amy Baron-Evans, Sentencing Resource Counsel, Federal Public and Community Defenders
  • Douglas A.  Berman, Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University
  • Michael Volkov, Partner, Mayer Brown

Closing remarks by Laura Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office.