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  Congress Is Expected To Revisit Sentencing Laws
Posted by CN Staff on January 09, 2007 at 09:58:11 PT
By Lynette Clemetson 
Source: New York Times  

justice Washington, DC -- Federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandated prison terms for certain offenses are expected to come under fresh scrutiny as Democrats assume control of Congress.

Among those eagerly awaiting signs of change are federal judges, including many conservatives appointed by Republican presidents. They say the automatic sentences, determined by Congress, strip judges of individual discretion and result in ineffective, excessive penalties, often for low-level offenders.

Judges have long been critical of the automatic prison terms, referred to as mandatory minimum sentences, which were most recently enacted by Congress in 1986 in part to stem the drug trade. Now influential judges across the ideological spectrum say that the combination of Democratic leadership and growing Republican support for modest change may provide the best chance in years for a review of the system.

“With a changing of the guard, there should at least should be some discussion,” said William W. Wilkins, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan.

The House Judiciary Committee, under the new leadership of Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, is planning hearings on the laws, starting later this month or in early February. One of the first issues planned for review is the sentencing disparity between offenses involving powder and crack cocaine.

The possession or trafficking of crack brings much harsher penalties than those for similar amounts of the powder form of the drug. Mr. Conyers, a longtime critic of mandatory minimum sentences, favors treating both drugs equally.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has no immediate plans for hearings. But Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, also supports some changes in the sentencing policy for crack cocaine convictions (though more modest than Mr. Conyers and some other Democrats favor), and Judiciary Committee staff members say a serious Senate review of the issue is likely in the current Congress.

Many law enforcement officials support tough, automatic sentences and argue that weakening existing laws will cause an increase in drug trafficking and violent crime. Many judges say current laws have clogged jails and too often punish low-level offenders. Some judges also argue that automatic lengthy sentences give prosecutors an unfair bargaining tool that they can use to tailor charges and press defendants into plea bargains.

“These sentences can serve a purpose in certain types of cases involving certain types of offenders,” said Judge Reggie B. Walton of Federal District Court in the District of Columbia, who was appointed by President Bush, “but when you apply them across the board you end up doing a disservice not just to individuals but to society at large.”

Several judges say that broad inclusion in the coming Congressional hearings on sentencing would mark a notable departure from Judiciary Committee activity under the former Republican chairman, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, who many judges say maintained an antagonistic stance toward judges.

“There was no question that judges were targeted under the Sensenbrenner committee for speaking out,” said Judge Nancy Gertner, a Federal District Court judge appointed by President Bill Clinton who teaches a course on sentencing policy at Yale Law School.

Judge Gertner and others point to the example of Judge James Rosenbaum, a Reagan appointee who, in 2003, faced a Congressional review of his sentencing decisions under a barrage of criticism that he and other federal judges were too lenient. Many in the judicial community argued that Judge Rosenbaum was singled out because he criticized a proposal to increase federal sentences in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

Most judges shy away from direct formal involvement in legislative matters. But many say private interactions with legislators that do not focus on specific cases but on policy matters of concern to the judiciary are appropriate.

Judge Wilkins, a former legislative assistant to Senator Strom Thurmond, said he believed private conversations on mandatory minimum sentences with his own congressman, Representative Bob Inglis, Republican of South Carolina, helped change the legislator’s position.

Mr. Inglis, once a supporter of tough automatic sentences, said during a 1995 House vote that he would never vote for them again and has since become a Republican leader on sentencing reform.

“I was delighted that he took a principled stand, and I would like to think I was of some benefit to him in getting there,” said Judge Wilkins, who served as the first chairman of the Federal Sentencing Commission, the body charged by Congress with developing sentencing guidelines and collecting and analyzing statistics.

Some judges have expressed displeasure with the system from the bench or in written opinions.

At a sentencing last January Judge Walter S. Smith Jr., of the Western District of Texas, was required to add 10 years to the already mandated 10-year sentence in a crack distribution case because a gun was found under the defendant’s bed. During the sentencing, the judge stated, “This is one of those situations where I’d like to see a congressman sitting before me.”

In an impassioned written opinion in 2004, Judge Paul G. Cassell of the Federal District Court in Utah, who was appointed by President Bush, called the mandatory 55-year sentence he was forced to give a low-level marijuana dealer who possessed, but did not use or brandish, a firearm “simply irrational.”

In the opinion, Judge Cassell recommended a commutation of the sentence by the president, noting that the sentence, with consecutive 25-year terms for firearm possession, was longer than those required for an airport hijacker, second-degree murderer or a rapist.

The Supreme Court declined last fall to hear the case. But an amicus brief urging the court to take the case included signatures from legal figures like William Sessions, the former F.B.I. director; Janet Reno, attorney general during the Clinton administration; and Griffin Bell, attorney general under Jimmy Carter.

Many opponents of mandatory minimum sentences would like to see a full repeal of the laws. “After so many years of this, people have forgotten that we should be asking for the whole fix, not just little pieces,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

But most legal, legislative and judicial experts agree that repeal, or even broad-ranging overhaul of existing laws, is unlikely. More probable is serious review of crack cocaine sentencing laws.

Currently, possessing five grams of crack brings an automatic five-year sentence. It takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to warrant the same sentence. Similarly disparate higher amounts of the drugs results in a 10-year sentence. The 100-to-1 disparity, opponents of the law say, unfairly singles out poor, largely black offenders, who are more likely than whites to be convicted of dealing crack cocaine.

At a sentencing commission hearing in November, Judge Walton, associate director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under the first President George Bush and a onetime supporter of tough crack cocaine sentences, said it would be “unconscionable to maintain the current sentencing structure” on crack cocaine.

Mr. Sessions is a co-sponsor of a bill that would change the ratio for the two drugs to 20 to 1, increasing the amount of crack that brings a five-year sentence to 20 grams from 5, and lowering the powder cocaine trigger from 500 grams to 400 grams.

If judges say they are hopeful for new debate on sentencing policy, they are quick to add that they are not naïve. After all, many say, even politicians who are critical of current laws fear looking soft on crime.

“Candidly, the Democrats were never particularly courageous on this issue either,” Judge Gertner said. “But at least now it seems judges may be encouraged to be a part of the discussion. And if asked to speak up, I think many will.”

Sabrina Pacifici contributed reporting.

Source: New York Times (NY)
Author: Lynette Clemetson
Published: January 9, 2007
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Contact: letters@nytimes.com
Website: http://www.nytimes.com/

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Comment #23 posted by ekim on January 11, 2007 at 08:03:56 PT
E a question -- know how to contact the writers
Great story...would love to follow it. Haven't heard any talk about it anywhere...would be great if someone knew how to reach the producers/writers of this show. Wouldn't it be cool if they had authoritative figures talking about this? Maybe even have a LEAP-like cop supporting the DA? Dunno how to make that happen, though. Mike

Mike Smithson Speakers Bureau Coordinator Law Enforcement Against Prohibition http://www.leap.cc speakers@leap.cc 131 Flint Path, Syracuse, NY 13219 Cell: 315-243-5844 fax: 315-488-3630 Blog: http://blog.myspace.com/leapspeakers

[ Post Comment ]
 
Comment #22 posted by FoM on January 10, 2007 at 10:05:14 PT
Hope
I think it's time to put him down. I saw a video of him walking without any leg wraps and that broken leg was so out of alignment that he wouldn't make it probably for even breeding since live cover is required by the Thoroughbred breed. His whole hoof could fall off with laminitis too. It's a real shame they can't save some of his semen and maybe they will but it can't be used to breed a race horse.

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Comment #21 posted by Hope on January 10, 2007 at 09:53:25 PT
OT Barbaro has setback
http://www.breitbart.com/news/2007/01/10/D8MIFTA00.html

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Comment #20 posted by Hope on January 10, 2007 at 09:40:39 PT
E_Johnson
That's good news about daytime TV. Very good news. Thank you.

[ Post Comment ]
 
Comment #19 posted by mayan on January 09, 2007 at 18:15:08 PT
System
The Dems could end the Iraq war and the drug war by simply exposing the 9/11 inside job but they are complicit as well. All Americans will soon find out that the two parties have been one all along. The entire Middle East will soon be in flames and positive change will be all but impossible here.

THE WAY OUT IS THE WAY IN...

9/11 Probe Question Will Pass to Voters: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070109/NEWS02/701090310/1007/NEWS05

Congress on 9/11: http://www.motherjones.com/mojoblog/archives/2007/01/3216_congress_on_911.html

Pelosi and the Democrats Perpetuate Commission’s Betrayal & Cover-up of 9/11: http://www.911citizenswatch.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=985

They know we're coming: Bush picks ex-911 Commission Member for White House Counsel: http://911blogger.com/node/5461



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Comment #18 posted by SystemGoneDown on January 09, 2007 at 17:58:16 PT
CIA
Pardon my French but !$&% these so called Democrats. Where the hell were they for the past 20 years? It's TOO LATE! They are going to try to reform the sentencing? Too soft. Try reforming the entire friggen judicial system. The Reagan years put the system in place, and it only takes 20 years and 2 million prisoners to want to change it. Screw Democrats. Their are much bigger things going on in The World that most people don't see the vastness of. OUR WORLD is collapsing because America is collapsing. By bringing the issues of Drug Law sentencing to the table, the powers that be(the CIA) are facilitating our resistence.

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Comment #17 posted by Dankhank on January 09, 2007 at 17:11:00 PT
OT Sir Paul

http://www.10zenmonkeys.com/2007/01/03/paul-mccartney-on-drugs/

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Comment #16 posted by E_Johnson on January 09, 2007 at 16:51:11 PT
dongenero it's only a matter of time
Today federal agents shot and killed a man who was believed to be armed and high on chopped liver.

[ Post Comment ]
 
Comment #15 posted by Dankhank on January 09, 2007 at 16:37:17 PT
right on ...
EJ

you're right ... its a move into daytime TV.

more momentous than I first appended ...

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Comment #14 posted by E_Johnson on January 09, 2007 at 16:12:44 PT
You can keep track of it here
http://soapoperadigest.com/recaps/gh/current/

Alexis is the one on chemo. Ric is her sociopathic ex, and Spinelli is the cannabis consumer/computer networking expert .

This is major. Daytime TV is the testing ground for national mainstream acceptance in American culture.

I'm surprised NORML or the MPP aren't on to this already.

This feels as big as when they had the first gay characters come out.

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Comment #13 posted by dongenero on January 09, 2007 at 14:46:20 PT
Fois Gras
So, people are flouting the ban on Fois Gras in Chicago???

Maybe they should put it under the control of the DEA and set up mandatory minimum sentences for selling, possessing or eating Fois Gras.

And don't even think of owning a firearm at the same time!

Hey at least there are victims here, right? The ducks and geese!

Stop the drug war insanity!

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Comment #12 posted by dankhank on January 09, 2007 at 14:20:20 PT
could be of interest ...
no tellin'

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070109/ap_on_en_tv/tv_o_reilly_vs_colbert

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Comment #11 posted by Dankhank on January 09, 2007 at 14:04:25 PT
Soaps ...
more than you ever wanted to know ...

http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/S/htmlS/soapopera/soapopera.htm

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Comment #10 posted by FoM on January 09, 2007 at 13:14:19 PT
E_Johnson
I had to think about it but I haven't seen a soap opera in about 15 years.

[ Post Comment ]
 
Comment #9 posted by Dankhank on January 09, 2007 at 12:48:57 PT
General Hospital ...
very interesting ...

I don't know what else to say ...

:-)

[ Post Comment ]

 
Comment #8 posted by The GCW on January 09, 2007 at 12:42:45 PT
Ban in Chicago Is Flouted
Foie Gras Ban in Chicago Is Flouted

http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/C/CHICAGO_FOIE_GRAS?SITE=COFRI&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

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Comment #7 posted by E_Johnson on January 09, 2007 at 12:29:46 PT
Medical marijuana is on General Hospital
Hey anyone here watch the soaps?

I just watched yesterday's episode of General Hospital. A criminal prosecutor is having chemotherapy and she's so weakened and sickened by it that she can barely take care of her kids. So now her evil sociopathic ex is going to use her condition to take away custody of their child.

The writers brought a pothead hacker on the show and now the show's "kind hearted bipolar mafioso" Sonny Corinthos is paying the pothead hacker to supply the prosecutor with pot.

The pot works. The prosecutor is feeling good enough to eat dinner with her depressed children, making them happy again. And now she also has the physical and mental strength to stand up to her sociopathic ex.

But the sociopathic ex notices "something is different" about her when she stands up to him. He's suspicious as to what has brought on this sudden change.

I foresee a medical marijuana trial in this show's future.

Has anyone else been following this? I haven't seen it mentioned by NORML or MPP.

It's about time. Now they have lesbians on soap operas, and transgender issues. It's about time someone did a story arc on medical marijuana story.

[ Post Comment ]

 
Comment #6 posted by FoM on January 09, 2007 at 11:58:23 PT
kaptinemo
It has been a waste but maybe now we will see some of the drug issues addressed. That is my hope and my prayer.

[ Post Comment ]
 
Comment #5 posted by FoM on January 09, 2007 at 11:42:56 PT
nuevo mexican
Too much! LOL!

Looks like the Pentagon will levitate after all!

[ Post Comment ]

 
Comment #4 posted by nuevo mexican on January 09, 2007 at 11:34:49 PT
Here's Ted FOM! He's rockin' the house!
Go Teddy!

He got a standing ovation!

Now is the time to make your voice heard!

Escalation: It's Not Up To Him by Senator Edward M Kennedy http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/1/9/11283/45767

Sign the petition: http://www.tedkennedy.com/

Looks like the Pentagon will levitate after all!

Gore/Pelosi ticket for Presidency?

Or Gore/Kucinich

Or Gore/Dean

Or Pelosi/Kucinich

Pelosi/Edwards

Edwards/Kucinich

????????????

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Comment #3 posted by kaptinemo on January 09, 2007 at 11:28:32 PT:

All this was easily avoidable
It never ceases to amaze: when bad legislation like 'man-mins' is proposed, and thoughtful people speak out against it, they are castigated as being 'too soft on crime'.

20 years down the road, and the rest of the country realizes what the dissenters knew all along. All those lives and all that money wasted...

[ Post Comment ]

 
Comment #2 posted by FoM on January 09, 2007 at 10:11:24 PT
Press Release from The Drug Policy Alliance
Democratic Majority Has Opportunity to Find Exit Strategy for Failed War on Drugs

***

For Immediate Release:

For More Info: Tony Newman, Drug Policy Alliance January 9, 2007 (646) 335-5384

Access to Treatment, Reduction of HIV and Drug Overdoses and Tackling Inhumane Mandatory Minimums Now Possible with "New Direction" Dems

The Democratic takeover of Congress provides the best opportunity to reform our nation's failed drug war policies in more than a decade, says the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. Moreover, the takeover sets the stage for a showdown between Congress and the Bush Administration over federal raids on medical marijuana patients, military aid to Colombia, and numerous other White House drug policies.

"Republicans have incarcerated millions of nonviolent drug law offenders and wasted tens of billions of taxpayer dollars, yet drugs are readily available and the harms associated with them continue to mount," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Democrats need to step up to the plate and prove to Americans that they can do what Republicans couldn't do: reduce the harms associated with both drug abuse and the war on drugs."

Over the last decade, Democrats in Congress supported efforts to reform punitive drug laws and expand opportunities for drug treatment at greater numbers than Republicans. For instance, 144 House Democrats voted earlier this year to prohibit the U.S. Justice Department from undermining state medical marijuana laws (73 percent of voting Democrats). Only 18 Republicans supported the measure (just 8 percent of voting Republicans). 169 Democrats voted last year to cut funding to the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (more commonly known as "Plan Colombia"). Only 19 Republicans voted to do so. While former Republican committee chairs, such as Rep. James Sensenbrenner (WI) and Rep. Mark Souder (IN), have been cheerleaders of draconian legislation, the new Democratic chairs in the new Congress are solid drug policy reformers. Many support reforming mandatory minimum drug sentences, legalizing medical marijuana, eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, diverting nonviolent drug law offenders to drug treatment, and lifting the ban on using federal money for syringe exchange programs.

Despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars and incarcerating millions of Americans, illegal drugs remain cheap, potent, and widely available in every community. Meanwhile, the harms associated with drug abuse - addiction, overdose, the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, etc - continue to mount. The Drug Policy Alliance urges Democrats to set a "new bottom line" in the government's approach to drugs and to not repeat the mistakes Republicans made. In a five-point agenda the Drug Policy Alliance offered Democrats advice on how to reduce the harm associated with both drug abuse and the war on drugs.

Five-point agenda

--Hold hearings on the Bush Administration's failure to protect the American people. President Bush has diverted law enforcement resources away from fighting drug cartels and terrorist cells to arresting medical marijuana patients, doctors, and low-level drug law offenders. His administration's Reefer-Madness-like obsession with marijuana is largely responsible for our country's failure to deal adequately with methamphetamine. And the Bush Administration's radical crop eradication plans in Afghanistan and Colombia are driving poor families into the arms of our enemies, destabilizing those countries and boosting the efforts of those who seek to harm America.

--Reprioritize federal law enforcement resources. Democrats should change federal law to prevent the Bush Administration from squandering scarce resources. Most notably, Democrats should prohibit the Justice Department from undermining state medical marijuana laws. They also should raise the threshold amounts of drugs it takes to trigger mandatory minimum drug sentences, in order to encourage the Justice Department to target major drug traffickers.

--Make treatment available to all who need it. The quickest, cheapest, and most effective way to undermine drug markets and reduce drug abuse is to make substance abuse treatment available to all who need it, whenever they need it, and as often as they need it. Democrats should increase federal funding for drug treatment (including the Bush Administration's model voucher treatment program, Access to Recovery), establish policies that divert nonviolent drug law offenders to treatment instead of jail, and increase the number of people who can access substance abuse treatment through their health insurance.

--Eliminate the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. The 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is responsible for immense racial disparities in the federal criminal justice system. Several Senate Republicans have already introduced a bill to reform the sentences -although the legislation does not go far enough. And President Bush indicated early in his Administration that he would be open to reducing the disparity. Democrats should work to pass bi-partisan legislation eliminating this disparity.

--Enact legislation to reduce drug overdose deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Annual drug overdoses have more than doubled under Republican rule, yet not a single federal dollar goes to overdose prevention. Similarly, the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases from the sharing of dirty needles continues to mount; but not a single federal dollar goes to syringe exchange programs. Democrats can save thousands of lives a year by creating a federal grant program to help cities establish overdose prevention programs and lifting the federal ban that prohibits using federal money for syringe exchange. Preventing America's sons and daughters from dying is a winning issue.

"For years Democrats have allowed Republicans to beat them up on drug-related issues. But now they have an opportunity to go on the offensive with a clear reform message that will really impress voters," said Piper. "The Democrats can distinguish themselves from Republicans and show voters that they can solve complicated problems."

###

[ Post Comment ]

 
Comment #1 posted by FoM on January 09, 2007 at 09:59:57 PT
I Hope This Is Good News
The one good thing at least they are addressing it.

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