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GOP Senators Say Sentencing Shift Could Hamper Justice Reforms

A federal agency has given judges a new tool to reduce unusually long sentences for some prisoners if there is a change in a law, an approach Republican senators warned will hamper or even destroy the possibility of future criminal justice legislation.

The policy approved this month by the U.S. Sentencing Commission is deep in the legal weeds, giving guidance for federal judges on how to interpret a section of a sweeping bipartisan overhaul of the federal criminal justice system passed in 2018, reports Roll Call.

The debate on that approach, which goes into effect in November unless Congress disapproves, offers an inside look at the negotiations and challenges for lawmakers who want to take more steps to address racial inequality in the criminal justice system through sentencing changes.

The seven-member sentencing commission found common ground on new judicial guidelines addressing fentanyl-laced “fake pills” and sexual abuse against prisoners.

The guideline on reducing sentences put the commission in the middle of the partisan clash over how to approach violent crime and fair punishment in federal courts.

Advocacy groups, legal organizations and lawmakers weighed in on whether the commission should approve of guidance to federal judges that would expand the circumstances for so-called compassionate release.

In the 2018 law, Congress allowed federal inmates to ask courts to release them from prison for extraordinary and compelling reasons. Judges released thousands of inmates through that mechanism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the sentencing guidance adopted this month, a change in a law could be potential grounds for reducing a defendant’s sentence. Specifically, judges could consider reducing the sentence of an inmate who has served 10 years of an “unusually long sentence” if there is a “gross disparity” between their sentence and sentences imposed under new law.

Defense attorneys and advocates for prisoners said the guidance would empower federal courts to correct long-standing injustices and reduce unnecessary incarceration, as it had safely for some inmates during the pandemic.

Some federal prosecutors opposed the proposal, arguing the commission overstepped its role and did not yet know the public safety impact of the pandemic’s expansion of compassionate release.

“Federal law mandates a statute expressly provide for retroactive sentencing adjustments,” said Steven Wasserman, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys. “It is the role of Congress to decide if a sentence can be adjusted by a change in the law, not the sentencing commission.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the lead Republican on the push for the 2018 law, warned the commission that the guidance would cause problems for future bills that would reduce prison sentences.


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