Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pepper Case Could Spice up Sentencing

Today's Des Moines Register features an excellent article on a pending U.S. Supreme Court case that could really put some pepper in the sentencing process.

The case involves Jason Pepper, now 31, who was arrested seven years ago in Akron, Ia., on drug charges. He later pleaded guilty. He served his prison sentence and was released. But prosecutors repeatedly appealed his sentence, claiming it was too light.
Today, Pepper is 31. He is married, he has a job, and he has a child on the way. But if the Supreme Court rules against him, he could be headed back behind bars.
In the federal courts, sentences can get appealed -- and reversed by appellate courts -- frequently, sending the defendant back to the trial court for another sentencing hearing.  While the timeline in Pepper's case is full of twists and turns (see the article's helpful sidebar), the question for the Court is pretty simple:  if the defendant rehabilitated himself after his first sentencing, should a judge be allowed to consider that rehabilitation at the second sentencing?  (Oh, by the way, even the prosecutors think the answer should be yes!)  With so many sentencings and resentencings, the answer to this question could impact a lot of people, which is why FAMM has filed a "friend of the court" brief in Pepper's case.  You can read FAMM's thoughts and brief at our website.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Fairer Isn't the Same as Fair"

FAMM and other sentencing reform advocates hailed passage of the Fair Sentencing Act earlier this year because it reduced the indefensible disparity between crack and poweder cocaine sentences. An editorial in the Grand Rapids Press urges Congress to finish the job and eliminate the disparity. The editors wrote:

Punishment for breaking the law should be tough but fair. The new guidelines are a strong step in the right direction — but “fairer” isn’t the same as “fair.” Congress should seek parity.
We agree. Yet we would add that justice and fairness will not fully be realized until the law is made retroactive.





You Missed Some Stuffing...

Christopher Pike for the Toronto Star
Just in case your Thanksgiving cooking kept you away from the Toronto Star last week, here's an interesting article that shows that even those with good intentions can miss the mark on mandatory minimum laws sometimes.

The Star sat down with U.S. "drug czar" Gil Kerlikowske to talk about mandatory minimum drug sentences.  Why do our northerly neighbors care?  Because Canada has started following America's lead, creating new mandatory sentences for drug law violators.  Kerlikowske, who directs the Office of National Drug Control Policy for President Obama, has advocated for more treatment and less prison for low-level drug offenders, but still believes that mandatory minimums are needed for large-scale drug traffickers:
In an interview with the Star, Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s drug czar, said lawmakers in “almost every single state” in the U.S. are looking to reduce mandatory minimum penalties because prison populations have exploded with non-violent drug offenders.
"Where a minimum mandatory (jail term) would be effective or helpful is in the financiers and traffickers in large amounts (who) are clearly doing this as a profit motive,” he said. “It takes them out of circulation.”
In the interview, however, Kerlikowske was clear that policy-makers should recognize there is “a distinct difference” between big-time narcotics offenders and others who come into the criminal justice system “who clearly have an addiction problem.”
“Then the focus of the sentencing, the focus of whatever law that exists, should be as much treatment as any punishment.” That should include treatment of drug addictions behind prison walls.
“Otherwise you’re just being dumb on drugs,” he said.
That's all good and well, but Director Kerlikowske is missing some important points.  

First, all mandatory minimum laws will eventually produce bad justice, no matter who they are applied to.  Even if applied to kingpins, there will always be rare cases in which the mandatory sentence doesn't fit the crime.  What about high-level managers who are involved with a lot of drugs but, for some reason, don't share in the bulk of the profits?  Mandatory minimums are tied to the type and weight of the drug involved, which doesn't let judges consider other factors like how much a person profited, how much power they truly had, or whether they used violence.  Not even kingpins deserve one-size-fits-all sentences -- because one size just never fits all.

Second, mandatory minimums for kingpins are truly unnecessary.  Federal judges sentence hundreds of defendants each year, and those judges can tell a kingpin apart from a street seller or an addict faster than I can put together a sweet potato casserole.  Do we really think that judges are going to let major drug importers and manufacturers off the hook?  Federal judges are no fans of the drug industry and will be all too happy to lock up the worst of the worst for a good, long time -- no mandatory minimum required.

Finally, the current federal mandatory minimums show that Congress hasn't done a very good job deciding who is a major drug trafficker.  Under current law, you fit that description if your crime involved, for example, 280 grams of crack, 11 pounds of powder cocaine, or 10 grams of LSD.  Those don't strike me as kingpin quantities, but they'll get you a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term with no parole.  Sentences like those have packed America's prisons to bursting, and Canada would be wise not to do what we've done.

We appreciate Director Kerlikowske's reasonable approach to sentencing low-level offenders, but we'd like to see him take a stand against all drug mandatory minimums -- not just because it's logical, but also because it's just.  Even the worst of the worst deserve individualized treatment -- because if they don't get it, injustice will inevitably and eventually result.

--Stowe

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pardon people too, Mr. President!

Today's New York Times has this excellent article by George Lardner urging President Obama to pick up the pace and pardon or commute the sentences of federal prisoners, not just one lucky turkey.  Writes Lardner:

If by tomorrow he pardons no one but turkeys, President Obama will have the most sluggish record in this area of any American president except George W. Bush. He’ll have outdone George Washington, who granted a pardon after 669 days. And he will also have outlasted Bill Clinton, who took three days longer than Washington to grant his first pardons. If Mr. Obama waits until Christmas Eve, he will make even his immediate predecessor, who waited until Dec. 23, 2002, seem more generous.


Lardner points out that last month, President Obama turned down 605 requests for commutations — from prisoners who wanted their sentences shortened — and 71 for pardons.  Writes Lardner:

It’s difficult to understand why the president has been so unwilling to grant any clemency. As someone who has taught constitutional law, he knows that the founders gave him, and him alone, the power “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States except in cases of impeachment.” It is likely that he also knows that a disproportionate number of federal prisoners are black, that mandatory sentencing guidelines have left many of them with excessive sentences and that at least a few of them deserve clemency, whether they’ve asked for it or not.

Lardner notes that the federal pardon process is flawed, certainly contributing to the hold up.  But with a current backlog of petitions for both commutations and pardons close to 4,000, It's time for the president to act.  Lardner concludes:

The White House has tried to explain the current foot-dragging by saying that the president has asked for an updated set of standards for granting clemency. While improvements could be made, the truth is that the standards are time-tested — and fine, at least, for handling most petitions. President Obama needs only to do his job.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Former Congressman sees system from the inside

Known for supporting harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws during his term in Congress, disgraced former Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham, from Rancho Santa Fe, California, said in an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune that he's gained a new perspective on the criminal justice system and would do things differently now. For example, votes that made penalties for crack cocaine harsher than for powder cocaine were wrong, he said.

“I didn’t know jack weenie about what people were going through in here,” he said.

Cunningham regrets pleading guilty almost five years ago to conspiracy and tax evasion charges, feeling he was pushed into accepting the plea on the advice of his lawyers when he was "physically and emotionally weakened." According to the article:
He said he balked at first, but lawyers Mark Holscher and K. Lee Blalack told him if he challenged the charges it would cost him millions to fight the case, and he would risk spending the rest of his life in prison.
“Was I knowingly and intelligently signing that thing? I don’t think so in the condition I was in,” he said last week. “But I trusted my (lawyers).” He said he did so because he believed and was told he would get a year or two off of his prison term.
Cunningham also said his time in prison has made him an emerging advocate for prison and prosecutorial reform. He said he has written members of Congress volunteering his help — and said that Democratic congressmen will probably be more supportive of his efforts than his former Republican colleagues.

SentenceSpeak certainly knows how disorienting the criminal justice can be, and we're glad Cunningham is speaking out about the need for reform.  Sadly, it took his own conviction to make him see how unjust mandatory sentencing laws really are, but better late than never.  We're happy to give you a primer on sentencing reform advocacy on both sides of the aisle, Mr. Cunningham.  Just give us a call!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend


Grab your copy of 12 Angry Men and your best Henry Fonda scowl, because this upsetting story shows how overly-broad statutes combined with mandatory minimum sentences make a mean cocktail of gross injustice.

Here's a taste of the Radley Balko article on the sad case of Brian Aitken, who transported a legally-obtained gun in his car as part of a move from his home in Colorado to a new home in New Jersey.  As the article explains, New Jersey law essentially requires defendants to prove that their gun possession is legal because it falls within one of only a few permitted exceptions -- including transporting the gun between residences:
Evan Nappen, who is representing Aitken in his appeal, likens the process to claiming self-defense in a murder case. "If you kill someone because they're about to kill you first," he says, "you're still guilty of homicide. You have to prove you should be granted the exception for self-defense. It's the same thing for just about all New Jersey gun owners. You're guilty until you prove that you're innocent.” ...
In New Jersey, possession of a firearm without a permit is a felony, punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum of 10. Aitken was convicted and sentenced to seven.
"New Jersey gun laws are insane," Nappen says. "It makes a criminal of every gun owner and forces him to prove his innocence." Worse, in 2008 the New Jersey legislature and then-Gov. John Corzine changed the law to make the penalty for possessing a gun the same as the penalty for using it to commit a separate crime. That means someone like Aitken gets the same punishment as someone who assaults another person with a gun. In November 2008, New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram issued a directive (PDF) urging the state's prosecutors to apply the new law "vigorously," "strictly," and "uniformly."
Alas, applying a mandatory minimum "strictly" only increases the chances of creating crazy outcomes like Aitken's.  Poorly drafted laws combined with poorly tailored sentences is just poor justice.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

And on and on...

New advocates for sentencing reform seem to emerge every day. Today, it's a Republican state lawmaker in Arizona who says the state simply can't afford the high cost of mandatory prison sentences. (The story can be found here). His proposal to give judges more discretion over sentencing - a simple, safe step - was greeted with the usual fear-mongering by one of his colleagues. But as budget pressures across the country continue to grow, and the inefficiency of one-size-fits-all sentences becomes clearer, the drumbeat for sensible reform is going to grow louder.

Breaking News: Senators Ask DOJ for Pipeline Retroactivity

Big news today: Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Patrick Leahy (D-NY) have sent Attorney General Eric Holder a very interesting letter. The letter (see link below) asks AG Holder to instruct Department of Justice prosecutors to apply the Fair Sentencing Act's crack reforms to all federal crack offenders who committed their crimes before August 3 but have not been sentenced yet. These are sometimes called "pipeline" cases. The federal "savings clause," found in 1 U.S.C. section 109, says that courts can't apply new, shorter sentences to people who committed their crimes before those sentences became law -- even if they're sentenced for those crimes after the new sentences are in effect. That contention is getting challenged in pipeline crack cases around the federal courts as we speak, but in many districts, the DOJ's position has been that pipeline cases can't benefit from recent crack reforms.

But, Senators Durbin and Leahy say, whether the DOJ enforces the savings clause is entirely up to the DOJ (ah, the freedom that unreviewable prosecutorial discretion brings!). "Indeed," write the Senators, "it is the Justice Department's obligation not simply to prosecute defendants to the full extent of the law, but to seek justice. In this instance, justice requires that defendants not be sentenced for the next five years under a law that Congress has determined is unfair."

Hear, hear. And you can read the whole letter here:  Senators' Letter to Holder

Of course, this doesn't change the fact that the Fair Sentencing Act doesn't apply to all the people who inspired its creation:  the thousands of men and women already sitting in federal prison serving a crack sentence under the old racially discriminatory and completely unfair 100-to-1 crack-powder ratio.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Kill the Meth Monster

That's the name of this intriguing op-ed in yesterday's New York Times.  Written by Oregon district attorney Rob Bovett, the op-ed suggests that stopping methamphetamine production and distribution is as simple as making pseudophedrine -- an essential ingredient for the lab-produced drug -- available only with a prescription:
The only effective solution is to put the genie back in the bottle by returning pseudoephedrine to prescription-drug status. That’s what Oregon did more than four years ago, enabling the state to eliminate smurfing and nearly eradicate meth labs. This is part of the reason that Oregon recently experienced the steepest decline in crime rates in the 50 states.
Earlier this year, Mississippi also passed a law requiring a prescription to get pseudoephedrine. Since July, the number of meth labs in that state has fallen by 65 percent.
In 2009, Mexico, which had been the source of most of the methamphetamine on the streets of the United States, went further, banning pseudoephedrine entirely. The potency of meth from Mexico has since plummeted. This is great news. But now the ball is back in our court.
An interesting idea, to be sure -- especially if those statistics are accurate.  But the rest of the op-ed shows that stopping determined meth producers from getting their hands on pseudophedrine can be tricky business indeed.

While stemming the supply of drugs is a laudable goal, the op-ed doesn't mention reducing demand for meth.  Many, if not most, of the meth cases that come across our desks at FAMM involve people who have become addicted to the drug, then get long mandatory prison sentences instead of the treatment they need -- treatment that would take a meth user off the market for meth producers.  Mandatory minimums prevent judges from using alternatives like treatment and drug courts, which can be highly effective at reducing demand -- and at saving prison costs.

Stopping meth manufacturing is good, but killing the meth monster will require more than just creating more hoops for manufacturers to jump through.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Judge Weinstein vs. Mandatory Minimums

It's gotta be tough to be a judge.  Especially when mandatory minimum laws require you to give people sentences that don't fit or aren't deserved.  Judge Jack Weinstein, a federal judge in New York, isn't just giving in to these unfair laws.  He's fighting them.  This piece at The Atlantic pays tribute to Judge Weinstein and raises all the right questions about child porn laws and tough penalties:

New York federal District Court Judge Jack Weinstein isn’t a fan of mandatory minimum sentences. As Congress ratchets up penalties for certain crimes, prison sentences have doubled, then doubled again, in the past decade, often for reasons more political than penological. Judges stripped of discretion can either rubber-stamp what they see as harsh sentences, or find ways to impose lower penalties, inviting accusations that they are legislating from the bench.
Weinstein so opposes mandatory minimum drug sentences that for a time he refused to handle minor drug cases. More recently, he’s stirred up controversy by taking the same stance with respect to collectors of child pornography. In a case this year involving a New York man with a huge collection of kiddie porn, Weinstein has repeatedly refused to impose the minimum five-year prison sentence. He’s already tossed out two convictions in the case and says jurors have a right to be told of the disproportionate punishment before they render a guilty verdict. As Weinstein explained toThe New York Times, he doesn’t believe in “destroying lives unnecessarily” over a crime that harms nobody.
But does it harm nobody? Weinstein’s critics argue that merely “viewing” child porn does real harm to kids by perpetuating a $3 billion annual market. The Justice Department estimates that in creating their product, child pornographers have abused 1 million kids in the United States. And some studies suggest that between 30 and 50 percent of viewers of child porn also molest a child.
Weinstein says these people need treatment and supervision, not years in prison. And that puts him in the middle of several epic fights: between justice and mercy; between legislators and judges; and, ultimately, between what we know least and what we fear most.

Turkey Time!

Yes, it's that time of year again. Time for big family dinners, overeating, and the somewhat ridiculous turkey pardon ceremony at the White House. Each year, the President pardons a turkey or two from the death that would put them on the Thanksgiving table. The lucky birds go to plush farms or Disneyland. Meanwhile, prisoners wait for word on their applications for pardons and commutations.

On Friday, the Washington Post featured this superb editorial from Former United States Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love, which explains the problem with the pardon process:

Successful pardoning requires good staffing. The attorney general has been the steward of the pardon power for more than a century, helping your predecessors to engage boldly and purposefully in their duties. Justice Department regulations invite ordinary people to apply for presidential forgiveness and instruct them how to do so. In recent years, however, that invitation has bordered on the fraudulent. A lawyer who spent more than a decade working in the office that processes pardon applications wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times that "the bureaucratic managers of the Justice Department's clemency program continue to churn out a steady stream of almost uniformly negative advice, in a politically calculated attempt to restrain (rather than inform) the president's exercise of discretion." Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has described the pardon process as "drained of its moral force." Some thought was reportedly given early in your administration to repairing or replacing this broken advisory system, but reform measures were shelved with the departure of your first White House counsel.
In short: bad staffing + lack of concern = no clemency. And it has made the promise of clemency, in Love's words, "fraudulent."

The good news: it's not too late for the President to turn a corner. Making clemency a priority, taking a hard look at the Office of the Pardon Attorney's staff and practices, and granting clemency to worthy candidates are first steps to a system that works.

This year, we'd like to see some humans receive clemency on the White House lawn.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Snipping Away at State Prison Budgets

Here at SentenceSpeak, we talk an awful lot about the fiscal crisis and how it has motivated states across the country to reconsider their addictions to long mandatory sentences and incarceration.

This revamped report from the Vera Institute of Justice gives a good description of exactly how states have started cutting costs in response to the recession. The savings can come from decreasing the prison population, closing facilities, cutting educational and treatment programs, decreasing prison staff and their benefits, and -- yes, this is true -- decreasing the amount of food and number of meals given to inmates.

But states are also -- and this should be a no-brainer -- reconsidering the sentencing policies that packed their prisons in the first place.  Mandatory minimums, of course, are the worst culprits, because they bar judges from considering less time, no time, or diversion to a treatment or drug court program:
Many states have also moved toward relaxing mandatory sentences. In 2009, New York passed landmark legislation to undo its Rockefeller Drug Laws, eliminating mandatory minimums and reinstating judicial discretion in low-level drug cases (SB 56-B, 2009). This series of reforms reduced certain minimum penalties and eliminated prison sentences for specific low-level categories of offenses, resulting in retroactive resentencing for approximately 1,500 inmates. New Jersey amended a law that had required judges to sentence drug offenders to a mandatory minimum for distributing or possessing with intent to distribute a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school (SB 1866, 2009) [a FAMM reform!]. With the change, the courts now have the discretion to apply the mandatory minimum or place the offender on probation, provided that the offender did not commit the crime while on school premises, use or threaten violence, or possess a firearm. 
For low-level drug cases, Minnesota afforded judges the discretion to deviate from mandatory-minimum sentences upon motion by the prosecutor, and Rhode Island removed certain mandatory minimums (SB 802, 2009; SB 39, 2009, respectively). Delaware amended its mandatory sentencing policies by allowing the court to alter sentences of one year or less for individuals who have such a serious medical need that they need continuous treatment and do not pose a substantial risk to the community (HB 338, 2009).
FAMM's state project is working on reforms in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Florida.  If you'd like to donate to FAMM to support that work, click here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Other Housing Bubble Has Burst

The Boston Globe features this thoughtful and well-written piece by columnist James Carroll, and it's worth quoting at length.  It highlights the bursting of another housing bubble in America during this recession:  prisons.  After noting the meteoric rise of incarceration -- and its related billions in costs -- in the United States after the advent of mandatory minimums and other harsh sentencing policies, Carroll gets to the meat of his argument:
But while prisons boomed, something else was happening — a trade-off. As sociologist Loic Wacquant says, the government was simultaneously slashing funds for public housing. In the 1990s, as federal corrections budgets increased by $19 billion, money for housing was cut by $17 billion, "effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the poor." State budgets took their cues from Washington in a new but unspoken national consensus: poverty itself was criminalized. Although “law and order’’ was taken to be a Republican mantra, this phenomenon was fully bipartisan, as Wacquant shows, with the most ferocious growth in the incarceration of poor people occurring in the Clinton years. "Welfare as we know it" was replaced by punishment. States went prison-crazy.
But the current fiscal crisis has blown a hole through all that razor-wire. State budgets suddenly cannot afford prison systems, which universally choke off funds for education, transportation, and infrastructure. ... [T]he whole system has become morally dubious as well. While a famously over-exuberant economy was built on the lies of bankers tied to an artificially inflated housing sector, the prison boom depended on racist and class-biased "criminology" that was, in fact, steadily debunked by penal experts. Just as irrational assumptions of "risk assessment" prompted mortgage brokers to understate the risks of home ownership, they led prosecutors, in a parallel noted by Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon, to grossly overstate the risks to society of huge numbers of defendants. The housing bubble, Simon shows, devastated neighborhoods by littering them with abandoned properties. The prison bubble devastated neighborhoods by depriving them of fathers and husbands.
We've been watching the prison housing bubble burst all over the country in the last few years.  Those popping noises you've been hearing are the result of too much prison time, too many harsh sentences, and too little sentencing discretion in the hands of judges.  The real question:  Will state legislatures and Congress step up and do something about it by changing our sentencing policies?

Setting the Record Straight on Pardons

A few days ago, this L.A. Times editorial questioned why President Obama has not granted any clemency requests in almost two years in the White House.  On Saturday, Samuel Morison, a former employee of the Office of the Pardon Attorney (which reviews cases and makes clemency recommendations to the President), offered the L.A. Times an answer:  the lack of clemency isn't President Obama's fault.


According to Morison, it's the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) that is to blame.  Former OPA attorney Morison reports that OPA, which is located within the Department of Justice, is not recommending cases favorably to the White House because, well, it just doesn't believe that offenders should get clemency:
[T]here is a strong presumption within the pardon office that the number of favorable recommendations should be kept to an absolute minimum, regardless of the equitable merits of any individual petition. This stance ignores the reality of a burgeoning federal prison population of more than 200,000 inmates, many serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, and the proliferation of collateral disabilities that hinder ex-offenders' ability to restart their lives, which the attorney general himself has criticized as a "recipe for high recidivism."
Yet the bureaucratic managers of the Justice Department's clemency program continue to churn out a steady stream of almost uniformly negative advice, in a politically calculated attempt to restrain (rather than inform) the president's exercise of discretion. This advisory record presupposes, falsely, that the federal criminal justice system is virtually flawless; that injustices almost never occur, sentences are almost never excessive, circumstances almost never change, and mercy is almost never appropriate.
Morison's solution:
Accordingly, if Obama is going to "take a liberal view of the clemency power, exercising it often and on the basis of clear standards," as The Times suggests, he will have to defer less to the jaundiced advice he receives from the Justice Department and rely more on his own moral judgment.
 The OPA was created to assist the President in granting clemency.  If the OPA doesn't want to do that anymore, then the President either needs to clean house or do the job himself.  Either way, there are thousands of prisoners whose requests for justice and mercy deserve a fair, unbiased review.

For reactions to Morison's letter, check out Pardon Power and this lively debate over at Doug Berman's blog.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Happy Parole Eligibility Day!


Yesterday, one of FAMM's biggest legislative victories of the year went into effect: November 4 was the first day of parole eligibility for Massachusetts offenders serving mandatory minimum drug sentences in county Houses of Correction! Before this reform was passed, these offenders serving drug mandatory minimums were not eligible for parole -- now, they're eligible after serving half of their sentences. This huge improvement means that many nonviolent drug offenders could come home to their families months or even years sooner!

You can read all the details here, including this helpful factsheet about how parole eligibility will work.

Many thanks to all of FAMM's dedicated Massachusetts supporters -- this reform is only a first step, and we could not have done it without you!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

When You Vote, Remember Those Who Can't

Yep, it's Election Day!  Get on your comfy shoes and a big smile and head to your local polling place to choose your Representative and Senators, and your local and state officials, too!

And after you've exercised your constitutional right to vote, take a few minutes to remember those who can't.  In this NPR piece, The Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer talks about the 5.3 million people who can't vote because they were convicted of a crime.

Monday, November 1, 2010

New Crack Guidelines = Change...for Some

For any self-respecting sentencing nerd, November 1 is an important date on the calendar.

Why?  Because that's the date amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines go into effect.  Each spring, the U.S. Sentencing Commission proposes changes -- or "amendments" -- to the sentencing guidelines.  If they're not rejected by Congress, those amendments go into effect on November 1.  Sometimes, when new legislation is passed, Congress tells the Commission to issue "emergency amendments" so that the guidelines match up with the new legislation.  This was the case on August 3, when President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law.  The new law changes the amounts of crack cocaine that trigger five and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences, so Congress instructed the Sentencing Commission to change the sentencing guidelines accordingly.  The Commission did, and that emergency amendment goes into effect today.  Unfortunately, it is not retroactive -- meaning it does not help any crack offenders already in prison.

This Denver Post article has the skinny on what the emergency amendment means -- and doesn't mean -- for people convicted of federal crack crimes.  The good news:  the new law and new amendments will mean fairer sentences for thousands of people each year, going forward.  The bad news:  the new law and new amendments don't apply to people who have already been sentenced -- a flaw FAMM is trying to get Congress to fix right now.
Critics of the old guidelines say the next hurdle is getting Congress to apply the changes retroactively so prisoners serving sentences handed down in the 1980s and 1990s can benefit from the reductions.  Jennifer Seltzer-Stitt, legislative-affairs director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the stories of those who were sentenced under unfair crack guidelines inspired Congress to act.  "But the people who personified the injustice will continue to suffer," she said. "A really good analogy that someone else used is when a car company discovers something is broken, they fix it and then they recall all the cars and fix them."