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Sentencing Commission Priorities July 6, 2012

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Update from Julie Stewart, FAMM President:

Earlier this week, I asked you to write and tell the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make fixing the drug guidelines a priority. It sounds like many people are writing, and I’m eager to see how many letters we generate. We know, however, that a lot of our members are interested in other guideline reforms besides drugs. So, if you want to tell the Commission what you think about their non-drug proposed priorities, we urge you to do so.

First, to recap: The Commission recently announced its proposed priorities for the coming year and asked for feedback from the public. Proposed priorities are issues the Commission is thinking about working on in the upcoming years. The Commission doesn’t decide which priorities it is actually going to work on until it hears from the public. That’s where you come in. FAMM plans to submit formal comments to tell the Commission which proposed priorities it should choose to work on. If you care about any of these proposed priorities, or think that the Commission should add one, this is your chance to make sure your voice is heard.

Just because the Commission chooses to work on a particular priority, however, does not mean that the guidelines will change or that people in prison will get shorter sentences. When the Commission chooses to work on a priority, it usually takes a while — sometimes years — before the Commission makes changes, if any, to the guidelines. Even then, very few guideline changes reduce sentences, and very, very few of those are made retroactive. And remember, the Commission cannot change mandatory minimum sentences — only Congress can do that, by passing new laws.

Having said all that … below are some of the areas and activities the Sentencing Commission proposes to pursue this year. If you feel strongly about one or more, you should write and ask the Commission to make them a priority and work on them. Your letters can increase the odds that the Commission will work on the priorities you care about.

The Commission listed nine tentative priorities. Here are the ones we think you might be especially interested in, and some ideas for what to tell the Commission:

Commission Priority 1: Work with Congress and others to follow the recommendations the Commission made about statutory mandatory minimums. Last year, the Commission wrote a report on mandatory minimum laws and proposed a number of positive changes, such as broadening the safety valve, making gun mandatory minimums less severe, and reducing the severity of non-contact child pornography offenses. On the other hand, it also suggested that Congress consider legislation to make it more difficult for judges to disagree with the guidelines, which are now completely advisory.
Possible comment: I strongly oppose mandatory minimum sentencing laws and therefore support proposals to repeal and reform those laws. In its 2011 report on mandatory minimums, the Commission recommended amendments to the federal safety valve so that judges would have discretion to give more offenders appropriate sentences. If mandatory minimums cannot be repealed outright, the safety valve should be expanded.
Commission Priority 2: In the wake of United States v. Booker, continue to study sentences and issue a report possibly recommending that Congress pass laws governing the guidelines.
Possible comment: I do not think Congress or the Commission can foresee the unique circumstances of every case. Therefore, I think courts should have the discretion to depart from the sentencing guidelines, if it is appropriate after reviewing the facts and circumstances of an individual’s case. I urge the Commission to oppose legislation that would eliminate or limit this discretion by making the guidelines mandatory or by making it easier for appeals courts to second-guess sentencing judges’ decisions.
Commission Priority 3: The Commission plans to conclude its review of child pornography offenses and issue a report and possibly recommendations to Congress. Sentences for these offenses have skyrocketed over the past 15 years, driven mostly by Congress and not by empirical evidence. In recent years, many judges have shortened sentences in these cases, when possible.
Possible comment: I support the Commission’s comprehensive study of the guidelines in this area. Sentences for child pornography-related offenses have skyrocketed over the past 15 years. These increases were driven mostly by Congress and not by empirical evidence. Over the past several years, judges have begun departing from the guidelines at an increasing rate, because they know that not all offenders are equally culpable and therefore do not deserve the harsh, one-size-fits-all sentences that usually apply.
Commission Priority 4: The Commission plans to continue its review of the sentences for economic crimes, especially sentences that come from application of the fraud guideline. The Commission may consider amending the guidelines in this area. Currently, calculations using the fraud guideline give too much weight to a single factor – the amount of loss – that doesn’t reflect an offender’s actual culpability. That guideline also has overlapping, redundant enhancements that can drive sentences very high.
Possible comment: I support the Commission’s review of the fraud guideline. Currently, calculations using the fraud guideline give too much weight to a single factor – the amount of loss – that doesn’t reflect an offender’s actual culpability. I am also concerned that the current fraud guideline contains overlapping sentencing enhancements that drive up sentences for even ordinary fraud offenses.
There are more proposals, including studies of the definition of “crime of violence” and new recidivism work. You can find the complete list here.

If you want to comment on any proposed priority, or if you want to suggest additional priorities, write a letter to the Commission. Here are some tips:
When you submit your comments on the proposed priorities, be sure to refer to the priority number so that the commissioners record your views properly.
Tell the Commission why you care; share your personal experiences to the extent you feel comfortable. Your (or your family’s) stories are more powerful than anything else the Commission will hear.
Be direct but respectful. Commission staff read all the letters they receive.
The salutation can read: “Dear Judge Saris,” because Judge Patti Saris chairs the Sentencing Commission.
Address your letter as follows:

United States Sentencing Commission
Attn: Public Affairs – Priorities Comment
One Columbus Ave, NE
Suite 2-500, South Lobby
Washington, DC 20002-8002

You can also email your letter to pubaffairs@ussc.gov.

Please remember that your comments must be received by the Commission on or before July 23.

Thank you so much for your help. It is so important for us get our message to the people with the power to make a difference.



1. cary lundgren - July 22, 2012

We the people in the USA are not bad compared to the rest of the world. So why do we lock up more of our own people per capita than any other country? Almost 2 times more than the next highest per capita country!
First time offenders do not need to be locked up for years with minimum sentences and no good time! This is a bigger crime than the offenses committed which put them there!
Already anyone charged with a crime is not going to have a fair trial! How can any average person afford to prove his innocence by fighting the prosecution and its many attorneys with the governments money and payroll? Sure there are public defenders but their budget verses the district attorneys budget is thousands to one, and the prosecutors have all of law enforcement backing them up to prove an individual guilty! What does the individual have on his side to try to prove his innocence? A public paid attorney with a case load so great that they can not even remember one clients name from the next!
Often courts in the USA have a plead guilty rate of 99% as in multnomah co. Most other countries have about a 75% conviction rate which seems a lot more realistic or fair!
People need to scale back these long time mandatory minimums and have the inmates be able to reform by giving them good time as an incentive! Stop allowing a bigger crime by ruining so many young lives by these horrifically long sentences! Some never get a warning or another chance their first time in trouble as an adult and they are locked up for 70 months! Its very unfair and a terrible thing to ruin these young lives rather than giving them a chance to reform and be a positive part of their community!