Drugs

Enouraging Signs That the Government Is Rethinking Sending Drug Offenders Straight to Prison

The powerful Sentencing Commission has signaled that it intends to focus next year on developing alternatives to imprisonment.
The US Sentencing Commission, the panel that sets sentencing guidelines for federal courts, has signaled that it intends to focus next year on developing alternatives to imprisonment, a move that is welcomed by reform advocates, but opposed by conservatives and, likely, the Justice Department. The commission's intentions were mentioned in a recent filing in the Federal Register and come as a September 8 deadline for public comment has just passed.

Created in 1984, the Sentencing Commission consists of seven presidential appointees who are then confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel is charged with making sentencing recommendations which automatically take effect unless Congress proactively votes to reject them.

While Congress has repeatedly enacted tough new sentences in bouts of anti-crime or anti-drug hysteria, the Sentencing Commission is less prone to political passions and more likely to act as a restraining influence on congressional incarceration mania. The commission, for example, has for more than a decade urged reforms of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparities that have seen thousands of African-Americans imprisoned for years for crack while mostly whites holding similar amounts of powder cocaine do far less time. Last year, the commission enacted changes in the federal sentencing guidelines to reduce sentences for crack offenders.

Despite objections from the Justice Department, the commission then went a step further, making the reductions retroactive so that some of the thousands of long-serving crack offenders could get out of prison a few months early.

But with some 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, including more than 200,000 in the federal system -- more than half of them drug offenders -- the commission signaled earlier this year that it wants to see more efforts to reduce those numbers. This summer, it hosted a two-day symposium on alternatives to incarceration, and now, with the Federal Register announcement, it appears the commission will continue down that path.

"The summer symposium was a really good coming together of criminal justice experts," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "There were judges, probation and parole people, law enforcement, academics, and advocates there to talk about what the states are doing in relation to alternatives to incarceration. They discussed successful programs that are diverting people from prison. The commission has demonstrated its interest in this issue and has said it would distribute materials from the symposium, so we are hoping the commission will look to apply some of this to alternatives to incarceration at the federal level, including expanding the sentencing grid to include alternatives."

Not everyone was so excited. In a weekend story in the Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department seemed decidedly unimpressed. Spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said that while the department is interested about the use of expanded monitoring technologies, "we do not believe the use of alternatives should be expanded without further rigorous research showing their effectiveness in promoting public safety."

Similarly, Michael Rushford of the conservative, victims' rights-oriented Criminal Justice Legal Foundation warned that resorting to less mass incarceration could result in rising crime and violence. "I'm old enough to remember the 1960s and the sky-high crime and murder rates we had then," he said. "While there may be a role for diversion for young offenders, serious felony offenders need to be behind bars."

While it is unclear exactly what the commission might recommend, the summer symposium heard lots of talk about drug courts, residential and community corrections, and other alternatives to incarceration. It does seem clear that the commission wants to reduce the flow of new inmates before they get to the prison gates.

"We're going to be looking at what might fit at the starting point, before somebody is sent to prison," District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, chairman of the commission, told the Wall Street Journal. But the commission will move cautiously, he said.

"The commission's priorities for next year are not yet finalized," said Gotsch, who is hoping it will also consider further reforms of crack sentencing and the mandatory minimum sentencing structure. "But we are encouraged by the symposium and this announcement. Advocates like us and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) will continue to push for modifications of the sentencing grid to make including alternatives to incarceration a priority. The issue is clearly on their radar, and that's a good thing," she said.

The Sentencing Commission can -- and should -- have an impact on Congress, Gotsch said. "If we can get them on board for alternatives to incarceration, that will be huge. When the commission speaks on a sentencing issue, Congress should listen."
Phillip S. Smith is a staff writer for StoptheDrugWar.org.
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