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ACLU Urges U.S. Sentencing Commission to Restore Basic Fairness to Criminal Justice System

Dan Zeidman,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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March 31, 2011

On March 21, the ACLU submitted recommendations to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in response to the commission’s request for public comments on a variety of proposed amendments to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. In the comments, the ACLU urges the commission to:

  • minimize the role of drug quantity as a driving factor in sentencing
  • make the United States Sentencing Guidelines that implement the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive
  • reduce the sentencing guidelines for all drugs offenses
  • allow courts to impose a sentence below a statutory mandatory minimum on certain instances

The overarching theme of the ACLU’s comments is that by adopting the policies described above, the Sentencing Commission can take a major step toward restoring basic fairness in our criminal justice system. In the 40 years since President Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs,” America has spent approximately one trillion dollars pursuing a failed policy that has had little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States. In fact, the major result of this “war” is that it has helped earn America the lamentable distinction of incarcerating more people – in absolute numbers and per capita – than any other nation in the world. To make matters worse, this population disproportionately and overwhelmingly consists of individuals of color and the poor.

As the independent agency responsible for setting sentencing policies for the federal courts, the commission needs to take specific practical steps to reinstate confidence in our criminal justice system. By reducing unequal and unnecessary drug sentences the commission would help wean America off its misguided reliance on ineffective, draconian policies for drug offenders that have promoted not only racial disparities in sentencing but also a sustained and costly explosion in the number of people in the federal penal system.

Many states — including Kentucky, New Jersey and Washington — have already embraced meaningful drug sentencing reform, and the ACLU will continue working with the Sentencing Commission, the administration and Congress to ensure that the federal criminal justice system also imposes sentences that protect the public and preserve precious financial resources.

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