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Fed. Sentencing Day

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The U.S. Supreme Court announced three opinions today on federal sentencing matters. We won't be covering them much here. There is commentary at SL&P and SCOTUSblog. In a nutshell:

Watson v. United States rejected the preposterous notion that a person "uses" a gun within the meaning 18 U. S. C. ยง924(c)(1)(A) by receiving it in trade for drugs.

Kimbrough v. United States held that under the post-Booker federal sentencing system, a judge can decide that the much-criticized guideline that considers an amount of crack cocaine equal to 100 times as much powder is unreasonable and need not be followed.

Gall v. United States held that under the same post-Booker regime, appellate courts consider all district court sentencing decisions under the same abuse-of-discretion standard, not a different standard depending on whether it's inside or outside the guidelines.

The orders list had no grants, as expected given that grants were announced Friday.

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The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously yesterday to give federal inmates incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses a chance to reduce their sentences, paving the way for about 3,800 prisoners to petition for an early release in the next year.
According to an analysis by the commission, 19,500 inmates will be eligible to petition the courts to reduce their sentences. The largest number of those -- more than 1,400 -- were convicted in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, covering Northern Virginia and the Richmond and Tidewater areas. About 280 inmates convicted in federal courts in Maryland will be eligible, as well as almost 270 prisoners convicted and sentenced in the District.
"Crack cocaine sentences have generally been excessive and unwarranted," said William K. Sessions III, a vice chair of the commission. He went on to quote Judge Reggie B. Walton, who appeared before the commission last month: "I just don't see how it's fair that someone sentenced on October 30th gets a certain sentence when someone sentenced on November 1st gets another."
The commission's vote came a day after the Supreme Court decided that federal district judges are not bound by commission guidelines that created a large disparity in punishments meted out to crack and powder cocaine offenders. The 7 to 2 decision cut across the court's typical ideological divide.
The commission's decisions are its attempts to narrow that gap. That disparity, first written into federal law by Congress in 1986, has long been criticized by some jurists and civil rights advocates because it meant crack cocaine offenders, who tend to be African American, often get longer prison sentences than those convicted of crimes involving powder cocaine, who more often are white.
In March, crack cocaine offenders will be eligible to petition the courts that originally sentenced them to have their prison time reduced. Many could be denied by judges based on certain factors, such as whether they represent a public danger or were convicted for other crimes.
But the change is not a "get out of jail free" card, said commissioner Michael E. Horowitz. "Not everybody is automatically entitled to this reduction," he said, explaining that federal judges, many of whom supported making the guidelines retroactive, will decide cases individually on merits.

[The remainder of this comment was an advertisement and has been deleted. -- CJLF staff]

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