Legislation & Lobbying

ABA Experts: Cut Crack Cocaine Sentences

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In testimony this week before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, experts representing the American Bar Association are among the scheduled witnesses expected to call for the reduction of relatively high prison sentences imposed on a largely African-American group of defendants convicted of crimes related to crack cocaine.

In written statements concerning their planned testimony on behalf of the ABA, Barry Boss, co-chair of the Sentencing Committee of the ABA Criminal Justice Section, and Stephen Saltzburg, a professor at George Washington University Law School, call for the retroactive elimination of a significant sentencing disparity between convictions for offenses concerning crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

This change would be accomplished by making retroactive new federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect Nov. 1, which are discussed in another ABAJournal.com post.

“The ABA not only opposes the crack-powder differential, but we also strongly oppose the mandatory minimum sentences that are imposed for all cocaine offenses,” writes Saltzburg, contending that mandatory sentences can be unjust and unduly severe. That is because they negate the role of the judge, and, instead rely on the charges determined by prosecutors to be appropriate to determine what sentence is appropriate, he says. While well-meaning, prosecutors are often young and inexperienced, and should fulfill a different role in the judicial system.

As detailed in a previous ABAJournal.com post, the change, if approved, could result in early release for 19,500 federal inmates, whose sentences would be reduced by about two years, on average. For this reason, the Justice Department objects to the retroactive application of the new sentencing guidelines, contending that early release of prisoners could lead to an increase in violent crime.

In addition to the new sentencing guidelines, three bills pending in Congress could also have a significant effect on the way crack cocaine offenses and powder cocaine offenses are handled in the courts, reports the New York Times in an article published earlier this month.

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