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Drugs, Law & Federal Penalties: U.S. Sentencing Commission Finally Reaches Quorum And Resumes Late Activi – Benzinga

  • Attorney Daniel Albert

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The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), which establishes and advises Congress on federal sentencing guidelines, has reached a full panel enrollment for the first time since 2014 and, more importantly, a quorum for the first time in three years, which will allow the group to finally follow its mandate goal. 
The USSC was created in 1985 as an independent agency in the federal government’s judicial branch to provide transparency in federal sentencing policy guidelines, advise Congress and the executive branch in developing criminal justice policy, and analyze and distribute information for federal courts to help ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive similar sentences.
Since 2019 and until August 4, 2022, it had been unable to reach a members quorum due to delays in Presidential appointments and Senate confirmations, a state of affairs that inhibited the implementation of drug sentencing and other reforms toward reducing disparities in the federal prison system. 
This included the First Step Act of 2018, a bipartisan criminal justice bill signed by former President Trump seeking to improve criminal justice outcomes and reduce the size of the federal prison population while creating mechanisms to maintain public safety.
The new panel is set to be led by US district judge Carlton Reeves of Jackson, Mississippi, the first Black chair in the commission’s 34-year history. Joining him are U.S. circuit judges Luis Felipe Restrepo, Laura Mate and Claire McCusker Murray, district judge Claria Horn Boom. former district judge John Gleeson and Candice Wong.
It was the Senate that confirmed President Biden’s seven bipartisan nominees to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The decision was widely celebrated by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who assisted the year-long bipartisan effort towards the support of successful appointments in hopes of reducing disparities and penalties for drug charges in the federal criminal justice system.

"The criminal legal system has unjustly stigmatized and punished individuals for the choices they make about what to put in their own bodies. Meaningful federal sentencing reform must ensure that people are no longer penalized and persecuted for those choices,” said Ismail L Ali, J.D., MAPS Policy and Advocacy Director.
Ali also affirmed that the organization will continue working with the committee and its ongoing task. “We will encourage and advocate for the slate of new Commissioners to open up conversations about reducing, and even eliminating, penalties for individuals and communities involved with currently illicit substances." 
MAPS will remain engaged with the USSC by encouraging sentencing reform related to psychedelics and other drugs as well. In addition to the ongoing MDMA for PTSD clinical research program towards FDA approval, the non-profit was founded to create sensible and compassionate alternatives to the War on Drugs and thus has submitted testimony about the sentencing guidelines related to MDMA to the USSC to further advance this goal.
As regards the Commission’s work, the yearly proposed priorities are usually announced in June and finalized in August, with the following announcement of proposed amendments in December and the presentation of a final list of amendments –which could get vetoed by the Senate– by May 1, which would become effective by November 1. 
If the new commission sets its priorities immediately, we could expect for an amended set of guidelines to become effective by November 1, 2023.
Upon designation, the incoming USSC chair US district judge Carlton W. Reeves stated: “The criminal justice system has some troubling divisions that have emerged among courts on sentencing issues during the years the Commission lacked a quorum.”
Reeves believes that the seven new commissioners’ joint experience and knowledge “will bode well as the Commission works to address these complex issues in a bipartisan matter.”
For his part, current acting chair senior district judge Charles Breyer agreed: “The lack of a quorum at the Sentencing Commission has created a void in the criminal justice system.” He confirmed “the difficulty judges have faced in implementing the criminal justice reforms enacted by the First Step Act in 2018,” and that “the Commission has been unable to provide guidance on a number of recent sentencing policy challenges, leaving the courts without uniform sentencing standards.”
Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman opined that patience will be needed. “There are lots of matters, big and small, that need the attention of a functioning Commission, but doing it right is more critical than doing it fast.”
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
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