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The Sentencing Guidelines Symposium

Held on September 9, 1997

"I am particularly troubled by the Sentencing Guidelines involving drug offenses. It seems to me that we have overly harsh sentences for drug offenses, especially for non-violent drug offenders."

- Representative John Conyers, Jr.

The Sentencing Guideline Symposium was held at the behest of Congressman Conyers to look into the unfair results of federal sentencing practices. A number of noteworthy speakers gave statements, including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, federal judges Morris E. Lasker and Stanley Sporkin and Mr. Jerome Miller, President of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. A very honest, hard hitting assessment was also given by Ms. Carmen Hernandez, an Assistant Federal Public Defender. Every drug defendant in the federal system owes a debt of gratitude to these outspoken critics of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Letters to that effect would show our appreciation and we urge you to take action.

Judge Lasker, who has been on the bench for 30 years, originally backed the Sentencing Guidelines, but his views have changed:

"Today I conclude, with sorrow and disappointment, and in the company, as you undoubtedly know, of many others, that the system is resulting in the imposition of many sentences which are neither just nor effective."

In Judge Lasker's opinion, there needs to be a sentencing differentiation made between violent and non-violent crime and a re-ordering of the current one size fits all approach.

"In this connection, it is terribly important to distinguish between violent and non-violent crime. The greatest fault of our present system-whether resulting from the Guidelines, the mandatory minimums, or both-is that it results in the imprisonment, or the imprisonment for too long, of vast numbers of offenders who have committed non-violent offenses."

Judge Lasker ended his discussion with the recommendation that the Guidelines be restructured to guide rather than dictate. He is for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing and adopting less expensive, more constructive methods of dealing with non-violent offenders than by incarceration imprisonment," he said.

Judge Stanley Sporkin delivered a dismal litany of sentencing injustices under the Guidelines and criticized the shift in discretion from judge to prosecutor. He was also critical of the practice of police sending cooperating or "working defendants"-the euphemism for snitches-into dangerous territory to make drug buys. He likened the practice to involuntary servitude. Judge Sporkin stated that the Guidelines need to be looked at and where changes are dictated, they should be made.

Mr. Miller of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, which began the Coalition for Federal Sentencing Reform, delivered a thorough and wonderfully concise condemnation of the Guidelines and called them responsible for turning a system that was once a model for the world into a national disgrace. He was especially critical of the use of acquitted conduct for sentencing purposes under U.S. v. Watts, and the overall dishonesty in the current system.

"The Coalition for Sentencing Reform is developing now in an effort to fill a void in leadership for reform on federal sentencing issues. Ten years have passed since the Guidelines experiment began, and three appointments are pending on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The problems are urgent and now is the time to start to solve them."

Ms. Carmen Hernandez, an Assistant Public Defender, gave yet another very well done critique of the Guidelines, emphasizing the unjust sentences, the enormous cost, racial disparity and the disaster of handing unfettered, unreviewable discretion to federal prosecutors. She artfully outlined the way criminal history is computed to perpetuate past inequity, explained how the Guidelines have become the "tail that wags the dog of the substantive offense," and quoted judges who are saying what we already know: that the integrity of the entire criminal justice system is at stake.

As a footnote to this report, during the Million Woman March recently held in Philadelphia, Congresswoman Maxine Waters gave a high spirited speech vilifying the Sentencing Guidelines, the mandatory minimums and mass incarceration in the U.S. She also scathed the C.I.A. for its involvement in the drug trade. The November Coalition urges all of you and your families to write letters of praise and encouragement to these hard working people who are more concerned with justice and humanity than of turning this country into one vast concentration camp.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

United States Congress

2138 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20515


Rep. John Conyers, Jr,

United States Congress

2138 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20515


Rep. Maxine Waters

United States Congress

330 Cannon House Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20515-0535

Working to end drug war injustice

Meet the People Behind The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

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