Senators find the Commission’s priorities “heartening and appropriate,” the top two of which involve implementing Durbin’s bipartisan law to responsibly reduce recidivism
WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice & Counterterrorism, and U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) submitted a public comment letter to U.S. Sentencing Commission Chair Carlton Reeves regarding proposed amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. This is the first amendment cycle of the newly-reconstituted Commission.
In the letter, the Senators applaud the Commission’s prioritization of First Step Act implementation – the bipartisan criminal justice law championed by Durbin and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), designed to make our justice system fairer and communities safer by reforming sentencing laws and providing opportunities for those who are incarcerated to prepare to re-enter society successfully.
“We find it heartening and appropriate that the Commission’s top two priorities for the current amendment cycle involve implementation of the First Step Act (FSA),” wrote the Senators.
The Senators expressed support for the Commission’s amendment to implement the First Step Act’s provisions permitting an incarcerated person to file a motion seeking a sentence reduction on their own behalf. Additionally, the Senators agreed with the Commission’s decision to provide courts the same discretion to determine what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for self-filed motions as exists for warden-filed motions.
“Judges have appropriately used their discretion to determine whether extraordinary and compelling reasons exist and have taken seriously the requirement to consider the § 3553(a) factors as well. The Commission’s data show that of the 25,416 compassionate release motions filed between October 2019 and September 2022, only 16.2 percent were granted. The Commission’s policy statement should preserve and support federal courts’ discretion and expertise in adjudicating compassionate release motions,” wrote the Senators.
The Senators continue on to urge the Commission to assign less weight to prior convictions when sentencing for current offenses, consistent with key First Step Act reforms.
“We urge the Commission, in each instance presented in Proposed Amendments #6 & #7, to move in the direction of assigning criminal history less weight as a factor in sentencing,” wrote the Senators. “Among many problems, overreliance on criminal history in sentencing exacerbates the effect of racially disparate arrest and prosecution rates. A 2014 examination of 3,528 police departments found that Black Americans are more likely to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime; at least 70 police departments arrested Black people at a rate ten times higher than non-Black people. For this reason, criminal history can often be more of a proxy for race than for any factor that is valid and relevant to sentencing.”
The Senators also expressed support for amendments that respond to sexual abuse offenses codified in the 2022 Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, that limit federal courts from considering acquitted conduct at sentencing, and that support a Commission study on alternatives to incarceration.
The letter follows Durbin’s December meeting with the Commission to discuss the First Step Act’s implementation heading into the Commission’s amendment cycle.
Full text of the letter is available here.