December 9, 2016
Contact: Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
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U.S. SENTENCING COMMISSION HOLDS LAST PUBLIC MEETING OF CURRENT COMMISSION, PROPOSES 2017 AMENDMENTS TO THE FEDERAL SENTENCING GUIDELINES
The public meeting afforded the current commissioners the opportunity to work together for the last time, as the terms of Chief Judge Patti B. Saris (Chair of the Commission), Judge Charles R. Breyer (Vice Chair), and Commissioner Dabney L. Friedrich will expire at the end of the current congressional session. Praising her colleagues, Chair Saris remarked, “Commissioner Friedrich and Judge Breyer demonstrated a remarkable commitment to improving federal sentencing policy and brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Commission. I am deeply honored to have worked with them, and all of the commissioners, these past six years to make the guidelines more efficient, effective, and just. The proposed amendments were evidence-based, data-driven, and adopted in a collegial and bipartisan fashion. I thank all the commissioners and staff for their hard work. I am confident that the future Commission and its staff will remain dedicated to this serious and important mission” (full remarks).
In her final statement as Chair, Chief Judge Saris stated, “Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the federal sentencing guidelines. So much bipartisan progress has been made in criminal justice reform. I am hopeful that the 115th Congress will pass meaningful legislation, adopting the Commission’s unanimous recommendations to reduce the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking and to expand the so-called ‘safety valve,’ the mechanism to reduce sentences for non-violent, low level offenders.” The Commission will announce a new Acting Chair at the conclusion of this session of Congress.
The Commission proposed an amendment that could increase the use of alternatives to incarceration for first-time offenders. The Commission remains committed to its work to make the guidelines and federal sentencing fairer and more proportionate while maintaining an ongoing commitment to public safety. In 2010, the Bureau of Prisons inmate population was 37% over capacity, and now it is around 15%. Consistent with the ongoing statutory mandate to address overcrowding, the proposed amendment would reduce penalties for first-time offenders and increase the availability of alternatives to incarceration. In a 2015 study, the Commission found that alternative sentences were imposed in only 13% of federal cases. In a more recent research report, the Commission further found that offenders with zero criminal history points had the lowest rates of recidivism.
The commissioners also agreed to conduct a two-year study of synthetic drugs, which may result in establishing drug equivalencies for controlled substances not yet referenced at the drug quantity table in §2D1.1. To contribute to the study, commissioners voted to seek comment on offenses involving synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones (more commonly known as bath salts), and MDMA, also known as Ecstasy.
In a May 2016 report, the Commission’s Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG) identified the treatment of youthful offenders as an area needing further examination. As a result of this study and the Commission’s subsequent research, commissioners voted unanimously to publish a proposed amendment that would exclude juvenile sentences from being considered in the calculation of the defendant’s criminal history score.
Another proposed amendment responds to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. The Commission is considering a proposed amendment that reflects Congress’s changes to the Social Security Act by increasing penalties for social security fraud. In putting forth this proposed amendment, Chair Saris stated, “I would like to acknowledge the important years of work, as well as the continued oversight, led by the House Judiciary Committee, the Senate Committee on Finance and the House Ways and Means Committee to ensure aggressive implementation of these new penalties relating to Social Security fraud.” Other changes relate to the treatment of revocation sentences under §4A1.2(k) and a possible departure provision at §4A1.3 based on an offender’s criminal history category.
Over the past six years, the current Commission took a number of actions to address unwarranted sentencing disparities and to reduce federal prison costs and populations. The Commission reduced disparities in federal cocaine sentencing policy by giving retroactive effect to the guideline changes resulting from the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, resulting in reduced sentences for 7,748 federal offenders. In 2014 the Commission changed the offense levels associated with the drug quantity table (often referred to as the “Drugs Minus Two” amendment)—as a result, 28,544 prison sentences were reduced, following the review of each case by a federal judge. These actions have contributed to a significant decrease in the federal prison population, leaving more funding for law enforcement, crime prevention and reentry programming, and victim services.
The Commission has also issued vital evidence-based reports based on years of research and study, including the 2011 Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, the 2012 Report to the Congress on the Continuing Impact of United States v. Booker on Federal Sentencing, the 2012 Report to the Congress: Federal Child Pornography Offenses, the 2015 Report the Congress: Impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, and the 2016 Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements.
By statute, commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and serve six-year terms. At least three of the commissioners must be federal judges and no more than four may belong to the same political party. Other Commissioners include Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., Commissioner Rachel E. Barkow, Commissioner J. Patricia Wilson Smoot (ex-officio, U.S. Parole Commission), and Commissioner Michelle Morales (ex-officio, U.S. Department of Justice). The Commission must have at least four voting Commissioners for a quorum.
Today’s proposed amendments are drawn from the final policy priorities the Commission unanimously approved in August 2016. The Commission requests public comment on these proposed amendments and issues for comment. The comment period will run from December 16 to February 20, 2016. All of the proposed amendments and issues for comment can be found here. The public is invited to e-mail comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch of the federal government, was organized in 1985 to develop a national sentencing policy for the federal courts. The resulting sentencing guidelines provide structure for the courts’ sentencing discretion to help ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive similar sentences.