Sentencing Commission calls for mandatory minimum reform

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About a quarter of offenders sentenced in federal courts during fiscal 2010 were subject to mandatory minimum guidelines, says a report from the United States Sentencing Commission, which also recommends that Congress reduce the severity and scope of minimums associated with some crimes.

"Sentencing data and interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys indicate that mandatory minimum penalties that are considered excessively severe tend to be applied inconsistently," the report says.

In particular, notable differences exist in the application of drug mandatory minimum penalties among various demographic groups, the report notes, citing the fact that 75.6 percent of black drug offenders convicted of a mandatory minimum penalty offense in fiscal 2010 were excluded from safety valve penalty reduction eligibility due to criminal history scores of more than one point.

"While these differences are attributable to legally relevant factors, they may create perceptions of unfairness and unwarranted disparity that cause concern insofar as they may foster disrespect for and lack of confidence in the federal criminal justice system," the report says.

Congress in 2010 approved the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce the disparity between federal penalties for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine from a 100:1 ratio to an 18:1 ratio, which the Sentencing Commission has applied retroactively, with the first affected inmates being released earlier this month.

The commission's analysis of 73,239 offenders sentenced before a federal court during fiscal 2010 (which was from Oct. 1, 2009 through Sept. 30, 2010) finds that while blacks constitute 20.7 percent of the offender population, they are 38.5 percent of the offender sub-populace subject to a mandatory minimum at sentencing. (The commission's analysis does not include an additional 10,707 fiscal 2010 cases that lacked documentation.)

More than three quarters of offenses in fiscal 2010 subject to mandatory minimums were for drug trafficking, the commission report adds--77.4 percent, to be exact. In fiscal 2010, the average sentence length for all offenders was 48 months; offenders convicted of a mandatory minimum offense received an average sentence of 139 months, while offenders convicted of a mandatory minimum offense but who received sentencing relief received an average sentence of 63 months, the commission report says.

The commission recommends Congress expand the safety valve for drug sentencing to include some non-violent offenders who "receive two, or perhaps three" criminal history points under the guidelines.

For more:
- go to the Sentencing Commission webpage for its report on mandatory minimum penalties in the federal criminal justice system

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