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Permanent retroactivity applied to crack-cocaine sentence reductions

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Thousands of federal inmates nationally and more than 200 from Indiana could get time shaved off their prison terms for crack-cocaine convictions, after the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to make reductions retroactive starting later this year.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously June 30 that proposed amendments to the guidelines that are part of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 should become permanently retroactive, effective Nov. 1.

This is the latest in a multi-year push to revise the mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines for those who’d been convicted for crack-cocaine offenses, a legal standard that’s been declared unreasonable and unconstitutional since first being implemented three decades ago.

Since the 1980s, the criminal justice system has gone by what’s known as the 100-to-1 ratio: someone convicted of possessing and intending to distribute five grams of crack cocaine in rock form would receive the same five-year minimum sentence as those doing the same with 500 grams or more of the powder-form cocaine.

But after landmark rulings from the Supreme Court of the United States in 2005 that restructured the nation’s sentencing structure, federal judges began looking at changes. Judge David F. Hamilton – as a Southern District of Indiana judge before his elevation to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals – studied that issue as part of the Committee on Criminal Law of the U.S. Judicial Conference and ultimately wrote to the Sentencing Commission about allowing retroactive reductions to those sentences.

The commission first voted in late 2007 to make sentencing reductions retroactive beginning in March 2008, and since then more than 16,000 convicts – 65 percent of those who requested relief – have been granted reduced sentences throughout the country.

The Northern District of Indiana has granted 80 percent and reduced 218 sentences, while the Southern District has granted about 59 percent and reduced 64 sentences, according to sentencing data. Overall, data shows the Northern District has reduced sentences by 17.2 percent – or 22 months total – while the Southern District has lowered sentences by 15.5 percent – or 31 months total based on the cases it’s handled.

The commission has continued studying that issue through the years. The Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010 that took effect Aug. 3, 2010, included lower sentences for crack-cocaine offenses going forward, but didn’t address retroactivity and that is what the proposed amendments to the guidelines focus on. A full day hearing June 1 brought in national experts to speak on the issue and why it’s needed, and the commission members spent the past month considering views from Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the federal judiciary and legal community before making this decision.

If Congress doesn’t disapprove of the amendment and revise it, then the retroactive reductions would go into effect and mean federal judges would be responsible for determining if convicts should receive lower sentences. Based on fiscal year 2010 sentencing data, approximately 12,000 offenders may be eligible to receive a sentence reduction, and the average reduction for those eligible would be about 37 months – leading to an average sentence, even after reductions, of about 10 years. The Bureau of Prisons estimates that this retroactivity could result in more than $200 million in savings during the first five years after retroactivity takes effect.

For Indiana going forward, data shows that 142 inmates sentenced between 1992 and 2010 could be eligible for lower sentences in the Northern District and 80 might be eligible in the Southern District. Most would be eligible for release from prison either immediately on Nov. 1, 2011, three years out, or more than six years after the retroactivity application takes effect, figures show, depending on when they were originally sentenced.

Now on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Hamilton told Indiana Lawyer that he hasn’t followed this issue closely recently but that generally he expects new cases to materialize in the District and Circuit courts as a result. He declined to speak more specifically because those issues might come before him, but judicial decisions recently show this retroactivity topic has been controversial.

A Wisconsin case before the 7th Circuit earlier this year hit on the topic, questioning when the Fair Sentencing Act and crack-cocaine offenses should be applied to those sentenced after its passage in 2010 for offenses convicted prior to that time. That case was U.S. v. Fisher, 635 F.3d 336, 340 (7th Cir. 2011), and a three-judge panel decided nothing could be done retroactively. The appellate court denied rehearing the case en banc, though Judges Hamilton and Ann C. Williams both dissented on that denial and said they would have agreed to hear it and apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively.

The 7th Circuit was the first nationally to address that question, and now with this new retroactivity guideline amendment, those types of cases could have a different outcome.
 

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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