The Leadership Conference is working diligently to see that Tom Perez is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor. Perez is an eminently qualified public servant and consensus builder who has dedicated his career to ensuring that all individuals are treated fairly and have the opportunity to succeed. He has served with integrity and distinction at the local, state and national level, compiling an outstanding record of achievement.
Progress toward Criminal Justice Reform
Feature Story by Tyler Lewis - 12/12/2007
Civil rights groups are celebrating promising developments toward reforming discriminatory sentencing in the criminal justice system.
On December 10, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (7-2) the right of judges to reject harsh federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses and to impose more lenient sentences.
"At a time of heightened public awareness regarding excessive penalties and disparate treatment within the justice system, today's ruling affirming judges' sentencing discretion is critical," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "Harsh mandatory sentences, particularly those for offenses involving crack cocaine, have created unjust racial disparity and excessive punishment for low-level offenses."
The justices backed a Virginia judge who sentenced Derrick Kimbrough, a Black Gulf War veteran from Norfolk, Va., to 15 years in prison for crack cocaine possession. The federal guidelines called for a sentence of 19 to 22 years, but the Virginia judge decided that the federal guidelines were excessive, noting that Kimbrough would have received a significantly lower sentence had he been found in possession of powder cocaine.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said the original sentence was acceptable because in determining sentencing, a judge is allowed to "consider the disparity between the guidelines' treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses."
The opinions give judges more leeway in making downward departures from the guidelines, which were enacted in the 1980s to punish high-level drug traffickers, but which instead impact predominantly low-level and first time offenders. "After almost 20 years on the books, the 100:1 disparity has proven unfair and ineffective. This decision means that judges can and should see that justice is done by issuing fair sentences," said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project
Following the Supreme Court's decision, the United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously on December 11 to make retroactive its recent guideline amendment on crack cocaine offenses, making an estimated 19,500 persons in prison eligible for a sentence reduction. Releases are subject to judicial review and will be staggered over 30 years.
Civil rights groups have long argued that the sentencing guidelines are discriminatory.
A recent Sentencing Project report, "A 25-Year Quagmire," which looks at the impact of the "War on Drugs" in minority communities, found that African Americans have been disproportionately affected by the heightened crackdown on drugs.
According to the report, African Americans constitute 14 percent of drug users, yet make up 37 percent of arrests and 56 percent of people in state prison. In addition, African Americans serve nearly as much time in prison for drug offenses as Whites do for violent offenses.
"Today's action, combined with the Court's decision yesterday, restores a measure of rationality to federal sentencing while also addressing the unconscionable racial disparities that the war on drugs has produced," said The Sentencing Project's Mauer.
Kimbrough decision (pdf)