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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ind. Courts - "Federal Judges See Sentencing Injustice, but the Calendar Disagrees"

I've categorized this story under "7th Circuit decisions" because the 7th is the only circuit to rule on this issue so far.

Adam Liptak's "Sidebar" column today in the NY Times is about the new federal law that reduces penalties for selling crack cocaine, but only for offenses committed after August. Liptak begins: "The federal judiciary is in something like open rebellion over a new law addressing the sentences to be meted out to people convicted of selling crack cocaine." More from the story:

The problem is that the law seems to reduce sentences only for offenses committed after it went into effect in August. The usual rule is that laws do not apply retroactively unless Congress says so, and here Congress said nothing. That seems to mean that hundreds and perhaps thousands of defendants who committed crack-related crimes before August will still face very harsh sentences.

In his recent decision, Judge Michael A. Ponsor of Federal District Court in Springfield, Mass., said that could not be right. It is one thing, he wrote, to have to impose an unjust sentence. But it is asking too much of judges, he went on, to require them to continue to sentence defendants under a racially skewed system “when the injustice has been identified and formally remedied by Congress itself.” * * *

But it is hardly clear that the revolt will succeed. The trial court decisions make an excellent case based on fairness. Their legal reasoning — that Congress must have meant for the law to be retroactive even though it did not say so — is less convincing.

The only appeals court to directly address the question so far, in Chicago, said only Congress could apply the new standards to old cases.

“We have sympathy,” Judge Terence T. Evans wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel, “for the two defendants here, who lost on a temporal roll of the cosmic dice and were sentenced under a structure which has now been recognized as unfair.”

Sentencing Law blog has more here, today.

The 7th Circuit opinion is U.S v. Fisher, decided March 11, 2011. Sentencing Law wrote about it here, on March 12th.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 19, 2011 09:40 AM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions