WASHINGTON, D.C., July 22, 2014 – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) issued the statement below following Friday’s U.S. Sentencing Commission Vote:
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) commends the July 18th unanimous vote by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC or Commission) to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders retroactively. “This amendment to the Drug Quantity Table, which will affect over 46,000 eligible drug offenders, is a huge victory and is critical in not only saving federal dollars, but also an important step in addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel and senior deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee.
As noted in a July 7th Lawyers’ Committee letter sent to the USSC in support of retroactive application of the 2014 Amendment: “Racial disparities persist at nearly every stage of the federal criminal justice system, leading to a prison population in which African Americans and Hispanics are grossly over-represented. In 2010, 37 percent of the federal prison population was Black, 32 percent was Hispanic, and 28 percent was white. Today, African Americans and Hispanics continue to be prosecuted at a disproportionate rate to their share of the general population. In 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that Blacks and Hispanics represent over 75 percent of federal defendants charged in federal district courts.”
“The Lawyers’ Committee will continue to urge Congress, which has until November 1, 2014 to weigh in on the amendment to reduce drug guidelines, to fully support the Commission it created in part to respond to reports of widespread disparities in sentencing practices across the country, including racial disparities,” said Tanya Clay House, public policy director of the Lawyers’ Committee.
African Americans and Hispanics also comprise a vast majority of those convicted of federal drug offenses, having 25.9 percent and 46.2 percent of the convictions respectively, a disparity which cannot be explained by greater use of illicit drugs. As a result, the share of the federal prison population represented by African Americans and Hispanics has burgeoned over the past several years to unsustainable levels. In April, the Commission unanimously voted on the underlying amendment – known as “All Drugs Minus Two” – which lowers federal sentencing guidelines for most federal drug crimes going forward. The decision of the Commission last week applies that amendment retroactively to those already sentenced and serving unduly lengthy sentences for federal drug offenses, lowering them an average of 25 months. A study by the Commission of a previous amendment that reduced sentences for crack cocaine offenses found that those who received sentence reductions posed no greater risk of recidivism.
Commensurate with their over-representation in the group of federal drug offenders, over 74 percent of the federal prisoners who stand to benefit from retroactivity are African American or Hispanic. Full retroactive application of the amendment to the Drug Quantity Table as unanimously adopted by the Commission will help ameliorate the effect of disproportionate arrests, charging and conviction of African Americans and Hispanics for drug offenses.
The Lawyers’ Committee has been engaged in the policy and legislative efforts of criminal justice reform throughout the years, including the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine. The Lawyers’ Committee’s Criminal Justice Initiative, formally established in 2014, expands the Committee’s work to focus on systemic reform of components of the criminal justice system that disproportionately affect minorities. The initiative is in the process of conducting listening sessions that are designed to best determine how the Lawyers’ Committee and the private bar can best reform the system.
On January 30, 2014, Deputy Attorney General James Cole solicited the assistance of the nation’s bar to help the Justice Department identify federal prisoners who, if sentenced today under current sentencing laws and policies, would likely have received a substantially lower sentence. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, along with the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have formed Clemency Project 2014 in response to Deputy Attorney General James Cole’s appeal to the private bar to help identify individuals who likely would have qualified for lower sentences if sentenced under current law and policies.
Like the clemency initiative, last week’s vote by the Sentencing Commission helps address unduly lengthy sentencing for drug offenses, one of the major contributors to mass incarceration in the federal prison population.
About the Lawyers’ Committee The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. We celebrated our 50thanniversary in 2013 and continue our quest of “Moving America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and community development; employment; voting; education; criminal justice and environmental justice. For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.