Mukasey on Crack: Backtracking on Sentencing

by Molly Kenney

Tragedy will ensue if new sentencing guidelines for crack offenses are made retroactive, Attorney General Michael Mukasey told the House Judiciary Committee this week. Did someone just tell him about the sentencing shift now?

Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the sentences for crack cocaine offenses in an attempt to address the startling inequalities between crack and powder cocaine penalties. Prior to that ruling, 5 grams of crack cocaine carried the same penalty as 500 grams of powder; more than 85 percent of incarcerated crack offenders are black. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kimbrough v. U.S. that judges were no longer bound by the sentencing guidelines. Within a day, the Sentencing Commission announced retroactive sentencing changes, making almost 20,000 inmates eligible for consideration for early release in the next decade.

On behalf of the brilliant Bush administration, Mukasey asked Congress to block the retroactive sentencing changes. According to The Washington Post, he warned that “tragic, but predictable results” would come from releasing crack offenders who were sentenced under the former guidelines. Mukasey is terrified for communities which will receive these criminals, “among the most serious and violent offenders in the federal system.” I guess that means communities shouldn’t be worried about the silly little (read: white suburbanite) powder cocaine offenders, or the average of 1,600 U.S. offenders of all stripes released daily.* The so-called “War on Drugs” isn’t that different from other wars this administration is waging — same scare tactics, same illogical reasoning.

So what is Mukasey doing raising this issue in February? Perhaps water sports or a short attention span kept him from addressing this last year, but his statement to the House will now likely fall on deaf ears. Congress made no move to block the guidelines last year, although it could have done so any time between May and November. Congress certainly is not going to act in the next three weeks before releases begin, just because Mukasey’s asking now. The federal judiciary, defense attorneys, and several probation and prison reform groups have all lauded the Sentencing Commission’s decision. Retroactive changes for unfair sentences are strongly backed, and this preoccupied Congress (one that is getting ready to pass a widely-supported, bipartisan offender reentry bill, the Second Chance Act) won’t care about Mukasey’s last inning rumblings.

Even the stances of Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the retroactive sentencing guidelines went almost unnoticed. Predictably, Sen. Clinton (D-NY) opposes the retroactive changes, continuing her habit of playing the Republican in Democratic clothing. Also expectedly, Obama wants change but undefined change. When asked in a December debate about this issue, he talked instead about the larger issue of young male involvement in drugs. With only vague hints from Obama, I’m going to have to assume that this means he is in favor of the retroactive sentencing changes. Obama is sponsoring the Second Chance Act, and with former Senator John Edwards gone from the presidential sweepstakes, I’m not supporting Hillary.

By objecting to righting wrongs such as racist sentencing, the Bush administration may be playing the “tough on crime” card, usually a guaranteed political boost, at a time when a boost is sorely needed. But this is just another bad move by a bad administration. Thankfully, this time, no one is listening to them, and the end is only 11 months away.

*This statistic from the Urban Institute circa 2001.

(For more background on this issue, please see: "Crack Sentencing Guidelines Revisited;" and "The Court on Crack.")

(The photo of crack cocaine is from the Drug Enforcement Administration and is in the public domain.)

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Nick said...

Great article. I can't really vote but definitely would have been in the Ron Paul group. I think I could handle four years more of whatever the Republican party had to offer as long as they legalized cannabis. I am so tired of hearing about people receiving extensive prison sentences for drugs. If we, as a society and country, focused more on theft crimes and crimes against someone's person, all the issues of our criminal justice / prison system would resolve themselves.

P.S. Adding this article to my blog and site to my blogroll. Thanks!

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