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Who Gets Sent to Federal Prisons?

The attorney general doesn’t know what he’s ­talking about.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By JOHN P. WALTERS
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The attorney general also spoke as if federal judges do not already have and use discretion in sentencing drug offenders. As the Sentencing Commission report notes:

In fiscal year 2012, judges in 18.2 percent of all drug cases determined that the applicable guideline range should be lowered because of the offender’s minor or minimal role in the offense. In marijuana cases, this adjustment to the guideline range occurred 23.0 percent of the time. In contrast, courts found such an adjustment warranted in only 5.0 percent of crack cocaine cases. In another 6.6 percent of drug cases, the court determined that the applicable guideline range should be increased because of the offender’s role in the offense as an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor.

The federal sentencing process actually does adjust punishment to fit the offense. As noted, the system even makes allowances in offenses related to powder and crack cocaine. In fiscal year 2012, the commission explains:

Powder cocaine offenders obtained relief from a mandatory minimum sentence at a higher rate (32.3 percent) through the statutory “safety valve” exception to such sentences, which requires courts to sentence an offender without regard to any otherwise applicable mandatory minimum punishment when certain conditions are met. In contrast, 7.6 percent of crack cocaine offenders obtained this relief.

Why do crack cocaine offenders—many with smaller quantities of illegal drugs and a majority of whom are African-American males—receive so little relief from mandatory minimum sentences? Isn’t this precisely what the attorney general cited as unjust in 

the present system? Here the Sentencing Commission also thought an explanation was in order, and it reported: “Overall, crack cocaine offenders continue to have, on average, a more serious criminal history than any other category of drug offender.”

In a democracy, a conversation about the ways and means of justice should always be welcome. Too bad the attorney general’s misleading rhetoric and shoddy statistics have us off to a rocky start.

John P. Walters is chief operating officer of the Hudson Institute and former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush.

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