December 17, 2007

Cautionary notes on last week's sentencing reforms

While some are heralding last week's federal sentencing reforms as the biggest civil rights development since Brown v. Board of Education back in 1954, others are less sanguine. The excellent Sentencing Law & Policy blog summarizes two cautionary opinion pieces, one by James Oliphant of the Chicago Tribune and the other by Adam Liptak of the New York Times.

Oliphant's piece, "New drug rules won't crack many jail doors," starts out:
When the U.S. Sentencing Commission last week reduced sentences for imprisoned crack cocaine offenders -- reversing years of policy that treated crack far differently from powder cocaine -- the Justice Department and police groups bitterly criticized the action, warning of a flood of criminals rushing out onto America's streets....

But many experts say the reality is not so dramatic. Fewer than 3,000 prisoners nationwide will be immediately eligible for the relief. All have already served considerable time. Each eligible prisoner will have to petition the court for freedom -- and the Justice Department can oppose those petitions. Few offenders with violent histories are likely to be released.
Adam Liptak's column, "Whittling Away, but Leaving a Gap," begins:
There was an avalanche of sentencing news last week. The Supreme Court gave trial judges more power to show mercy, the United States Sentencing Commission gave almost 20,000 prisoners doing time on crack cocaine charges a good shot at early release, and even President Bush commuted a crack sentence.

The net effect: tinkering. The United States justice system remains, by international standards at least, exceptionally punitive. And nothing that happened last week will change that.