THOUSANDS OF NONVIOLENT FEDERAL PRISONERS MAY GET EARLY RELEASE UNDER NEW CLEMENCY CRITERIA

In an effort to “restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality” in federal sentencing the Department of Justice is finally moving to directly reduce unfair sentences for nonviolent defendants by broadening clemency criteria.

The goal is to correct widespread sentence disparities which have escalated with the implementation of harsh Federal Sentencing Guidelines that gave federal judges little discretion in federal sentencing. In fact for a number of years it has been federal prosecutors rather than federal judges who made the most important sentencing decisions. And with the Justice Department decision to broaden clemency criteria it’s ever more clear that punishment in America is dominated not by judges but by prosecutors. Criminal defense lawyers could do little but force cases to trial or search for the best sentencing alternatives by persuading prosecutors that the case was weak.

Some federal judges even noted in opinions apparently not co-written by prosecutors that they had become little more than adding machines totally calculations for the sentencing guidelines without any real human input. In many cases wary federal judges have been unwilling to give lower sentences especially in jurisdictions such as the Middle District of Florida, where there existed the threat of successful appeal of the sentence by prosecutors. Even good judges found themselves hemmed in between harsh sentencing guidelines, minimum mandatory sentences and overzealous prosecutors. 

Clearly this is an important step toward fairer sentencing by the justice department. And at least this gives every sitting president the ability to right the wrongs of sentences that are unfair by granting clemency to clear up past unfair sentencing for those in prison awaiting American justice. One example of unfair sentence due to sentencing disparity given in the attorney general’s statement on clemency is crack cocaine. At one point those caught with crack cocaine were routinely sentenced to 100 times as much prison time as those prosecuted and punished for other forms of cocaine, which the Supreme Court reduced it to 18 to one. Yet even at 18 to one, many of those people convicted of this nonviolent drug possession charge still remain in prison. But what we really need is fair sentencing. 

And the only way to gain fair sentencing is to change the entire criminal justice system. We need judges who are brave, articulate and compassionate, who understand what serving time in jail really means and who are willing to do what is right no matter what the public consequences. We need new laws that give the power of sentencing to judges not prosecutors. We need overzealous prosecutors to understand that their first duty is to implement justice. And we need federal criminal defense lawyers who never give up, who never stop fighting for their clients to find the best possible sentencing outcomes.