Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tired of Crack Guideline News Yet?

We're not, and neither is the media.

Here's NPR's take on yesterday's crack retroactivity hearing.

FAMM President Julie Stewart appears in this New York Times article covering yesterday's hearing:

citing public safety concerns, Mr. Holder urged the commission to make an exception for inmates who had significant criminal histories or who had possessed or used a gun at the time of their drug offense. Because such inmates could be more dangerous, he argued, they should not be eligible to seek reduced sentences.
The administration’s position prompted some political criticism. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, issued a statement on Wednesday accusing the administration of “supporting the release of dangerous drug dealers,” saying the proposal “shows that they are more concerned with well-being of criminals than with the safety of our communities.”
But Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that advocates for judicial discretion in sentencing decisions, contended that the commission should make its crack cocaine guidelines retroactive without any exceptions because criminal histories and any gun possession were already factored into sentences under a separate part of the guidelines.
“I think it’s political,” Ms. Stewart said of the Obama administration’s stance. Interviewed by phone, she characterized the Justice Department’s position as “splitting the baby.”
For a nice critique of Representative Smith's statement against retroactivity, check out Doug Berman's blog post over at Sentencing Law and Policy.

An important release yesterday was this compilation of recidivism data on people who received the benefit of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's retroactive crack amendments in 2007.  The Commission tracked 848 crack offenders who were released early because of the retroactive amendment and compared them with 484 crack offenders who served their entire sentences.  Here are the highlights:

  • 30.4% of the retroactivity beneficiaries re-offended within two years of their release
  • 32.6% of crack offenders who served their entire sentences re-offended within two years of release.

In short, there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups -- but these rates also aren't abnormally high, either.  Considering some states have recidivism rates of nearly 65%, these numbers are actually pretty darn good.

One of the fears that crops up when people talk about retroactivity is this idea of unleashing hordes of violent, re-offending criminals onto our streets.  The recidivism data from 2007 says those fears are overblown.  And virtually all of these crack offenders are coming home eventually.  We can send them home a little bit earlier, with the knowledge that the system gave them a fair shake, or we can hold them longer, deny them basic justice, and send them home with that bitter taste still in their mouths.  Which solution sounds more just and compassionate to you?