Blacks, Latinos and immigrants receive longer prisons terms than others committing the same crimes, according to a new report issued last week by the United States Sentencing Commission. The commission is headed by former FBI chief William K Sessions III.
The sentencing differential apparently arose after a recent loosening of federal sentencing guidelines in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling, the United States v. Booker that allows judges greater flexibility in imposing prison terms.
The study indicates that Black and Latino men receive sentences that are 10 and 7 percent longer than whites respectively. Immigrants receive longer sentences than citizens, while college graduates serve less time those with high school diplomas or less.
The new trend apparently reverses progress in eliminating differentials. The report’s authors say the “difference in sentence length declined steadily in fiscal years 2000 and 2001. By fiscal year 2002, no statistically significant difference was observed in the sentences imposed on black offenders compared to white offenders. No statistically significant difference between the sentences imposed on these two groups was observed again until after the Booker decision in January 2005.”
The cause of the problem remains unclear and the results should be treated with caution. Conservatives have long favored mandatory sentencing. “People who commit similar crimes should receive similar sentences,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, reports the Kansas City Star.
The study comes as important steps are being made to eliminate differences in crack and powder cocaine sentencing. In a rare bipartisan move, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted unanimously for significant reforms.
The Washington Post writes, “The compromise would reduce the sentencing disparity to 18 to 1 for people caught with crack cocaine vs. those who carry the drug in powdered form. The current ratio has rested since 1986 at 100 to 1, disproportionately hurting African Americans, who are convicted of crack possession at far greater numbers.”
Most important, the possession of crack cocaine would no longer carry a mandatory minimum, a first for the House and Senate to take such steps.
This represents an important victory for the Obama administration which promised to work to eliminate such disparities in sentencing which have contributed to the U.S. having the world largest prison population.
Today “2.3 million people are in jail or prison, and another 5 million are on parole, probation or other community sanctions. This means that about 1 in every 31 American adults is under some form of correctional supervision–by far the highest rate in the world,” Louisiana-based criminal attorneys Damico and Stockstill said in a recent press release applauding the Senate Judiciary Committee and its chair, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, for passing a bill that would create a “blue-ribbon commission to study the justice system from top to bottom and propose much-needed reforms.”
This blue ribbon panel, headed by Webb, is the first time a review and major overhaul of the criminal justice system is being considered since draconian measures imposed by Republicans in the late 1980s and 1990s.
During that period, mandatory sentencing of juveniles as adults became a major legal fad. Currently 1,175 prisoners are servicing life sentences without parole after being sentenced as teenagers. The Supreme Court is currently considering the legality of the GOP legislation.
Leticia Miranda of Colorlines writes, “This June, the Supreme Court will decide whether young people can be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that didn’t result in a death. Separately, several states are also considering abolishing life without parole for youth.”