In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the vast disparity in the way the federal courts punish crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Instead of treating 100 grams of cocaine the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes, the law cut the ratio to 18 to 1. Initially, the law applied only to future offenders, but, a year later, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply it retroactively. Republicans raged, charging that crime would go up and that prisoners would overwhelm the courts with frivolous demands for sentence reductions. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the commission was pursuing “a liberal agenda at all costs.”
This week, we began to learn that there are no costs, only benefits. According to a preliminary report released by the commission, more than 7,300 federal prisoners have had their sentences shortened under the law. The average reduction is 29 months, meaning that over all, offenders are serving roughly 16,000 years fewer than they otherwise would have. And since the federal government spends about $30,000 per year to house an inmate, this reduction alone is worth nearly half-a-billion dollars — big money for a Bureau of Prisons with a $7 billion budget. In addition, the commission found no significant difference in recidivism rates between those prisoners who were released early and those who served their full sentences.
Take it away, Senator Grassley. From 2011:
Mr. Chairman, last year, we passed the Fair Sentencing Act. That law reduced sentences for crack cocaine, and directed the Sentencing Commission to establish changes to the Guidelines. The law applied prospectively only.
Now, however, the Sentencing Commission is considering applying its crack cocaine guidelines retroactively. By its own calculations, the sentences of 12,000 inmates would be reduced.
Most of these offenders are violent and likely to reoffend. Although these offenders are now serving time for crack cocaine offenses, the vast majority have been convicted of serious crimes in the past.
In addition to the dangers of releasing violent inmates, retroactive application of the guidelines would impose numerous costs on the Justice Department and the courts.
He’s a fiscal conservative, obviously:
Inmates will file thousands of resentencing petitions. Prosecutors will be required to respond, diverting them from other priorities. Court clerks will spend time managing this additional work. Magistrate judges will review the petitions and will hold at least some hearings to resolve them. Justice Department lawyers will need to prepare for those hearings. The Marshals Service will be required to transport inmates to and from their hearings. Various clerical functions and expenses will need to be incurred if the hearings are favorable to the inmates.
Neither the Department of Justice nor the courts should have to absorb these costs. If scarce resources are to be shifted, from prosecuting crime, to addressing petitions and hearings, the Sentencing Commission should have to pay the costs associated with making its guidelines retroactive. That is what my amendment does.
The Sentencing Commission has decided to pursue a liberal agenda at all costs, disregarding significant opposition to its misguided policies, and disregarding specific Congressional intent. Perhaps my amendment will, for the first time, gain their attention.
If the Sentencing Commission is going to be nothing but a one-way liberal ratchet to apply lower sentences for convicted violent offenders, we should think about abolishing it. Perhaps we should put it out of its misery – and ours.