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Sentencing Commission Nominees Would Update First Step Act Advice

Seven nominees to the U.S. Sentencing Commission promised on Wednesday to prioritize implementing a major 2018 criminal justice reform law, a task the hobbled panel had been unable to accomplish since losing its quorum soon after its enactment. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves told the Senate Judiciary Committee that if confirmed as panel chair, the commission would also address "troubling" divisions that emerged among courts on sentencing issues during the years it lacked a quorum, Reuters reports. The Mississippi judge is one of four Democratic nominees and three Republican picks that President Biden put forward in May to join the seven-member, bipartisan commission, which lost its quorum in January 2019. That occurred a month after former Republican President Trump signed the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation aimed at easing harsh sentencing for nonviolent offenders and at reducing recidivism.

The Senate never acted on Trump's nominees to the commission, leaving it unable to update sentencing guidelines or provide clarity on how judges should apply the First Step Act. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, its lone remaining commissioner and acting chair, has said that led to judges inconsistently deciding whether inmates could secure compassionate release amid the COVID-19 pandemic. "Today, we take an important step to remedy that problem," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), judiciary committee chair. Criminal justice reform advocates hope a newly reconstituted commission could help ease excessive prison sentences. Republicans sharply questioned some Democratic nominees, including John Gleeson, a former federal judge from Brooklyn and critic of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, about their past advocacy against harsh sentences. The other Democratic nominees are U.S. Circuit Judge Luis Restrepo and Laura Mate, director of the Sentencing Resource Counsel. The Republican nominees include Claire McCusker Murray, a Justice Department official during the Trump administration; Candice Wong, a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and U.S. District Judge Claria Horn Boom of Kentucky.


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