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Has Scaling Back Crack Penalties Already Gone Too Far?

That's what Judge Royce Lamberth of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia pondered as he considered a defense request to pare back the sentence of Melvin Butler, a key lieutenant of famed DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond.  I think it fair to say that, in the 1980's, Edmond and his gang inspired more sheer dread than anything else in Washington, DC.

Butler has been incarcerated for 24 years.  The question before Judge Lamberth is whether the court should grant Butler the lower sentence he would be eligible for today under more recently revised sentencing guidelines. The Washington Post story, by Spencer Szu and Julie Zauzmer, puts it this way:

A move to lower the lengthy prison sentence of a top associate of one of Washington's most notorious drug lords has prompted a federal judge to ask whether the nation's nascent drive to reduce prison populations might already be going too far.

The story continues:

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth expressed doubt last week about cutting two years off the 28 1/2 -year prison term of Melvin D. Butler, the Los Angeles-based broker for D.C. cocaine king Rayful Edmond III, whose trafficking network employed more than 150 people and imported as much as 1,700 pounds of Colombian cocaine a month into the city in the 1980s.

"It still gives me pause what Congress is doing," said Lamberth, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and who was chief judge of the district court from 2008 to 2013. "I would have thought the top drug kingpins in the country would not be the beneficiaries of what we're trying to do here. Am I wrong?"

The issue in Judge Lamberth's court reflects the turbulence nearby in the halls of Congress.  As the story tells us:

Lamberth's comments come as members of Congress from both parties prepare to introduce legislation in September to cut federal prison crowding, even amid a surge of violent crime this summer that has lifted murder rates from historic lows in the nation's capital and some other cities. The crime spike has prompted elected officials and police chiefs to calibrate their support for ending mass incarceration practices, saying repeat offenders are responsible for some of the recent violence.

And, it's being Washington, you knew a law professor would show up sooner or later.

Some conservative legal experts welcomed Lamberth's doubts, warning that "the culture is losing its nerve," turning excessively critical of police and discounting the role of harsh sentences in winning the fight against crime, as William G. Otis, a former federal prosecutor and special counsel for President George H.W. Bush, put it.

"If we cut back on the increased use of incarceration, we're going to get more crime.  I think we're already seeing that . . . right under our nose in D.C.," said Otis, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. "If we...just walk away from what we undertook to reduce crime, we're going to go back to where we were."

To say the very least, that view was not unanimous in academia  --  or, indeed, even at Georgetown:

Liberal law professors said that despite the charged rhetoric, a growing mass of empirical evidence -- including the high financial and social cost of U.S. incarceration policies, falling crime rates and the experience of states and countries that use less harsh tactics -- is forging a new consensus around appropriate punishments for nonviolent drug offenders.

"Twenty years ago, the idea of saying 'Reduce sentences for kingpins' would be unthinkable," said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and Georgetown law professor. "This in part shows how far we've come in terms of thinking more rationally, less emotionally about drug offenses."

Someone needs to tell me why it's "irrational" or "emotional" to believe that one of the most notorious, and dangerous, drug dealers in DC history deserves the sentence he lawfully got.  This is yet another instance in which sentencing "reformers" refuse to acknowledge the possibility of reasoned disagreement.  It's never that; it's always that those on the other side are "irrational" or emotional headcases. 

When a conservative does this, it's called "condescension."

No matter what comes out of Congress  --  if anything  --  the country is going to continue its long debate about drugs and punishment.  Still, just the fact that Rayful Edmunds' top lieutenant is able to seek more lenient treatment without the percolating "reform" statutes having even been drafted, shows that sentencing "reformers," despite their sly modesty, have already made considerable headway in dumbing down the system. 


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