Last year in United States v. Dossie, I wrote about how the mandatory minimum sentences in drug trafficking cases distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences. This case illustrates a separate but related defect in our federal sentencing regime.......
Diaz will be sentenced in a few weeks, and when that happens I will carefully consider all the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) except one — the length of imprisonment recommended by the United States Sentencing Commission’s Guidelines Manual. Though I will not ignore Diaz’s Guidelines range, I will place almost no weight on it because of my fundamental policy disagreement with the offense guideline that produces it. In fairness to the government, I write here to explain my belief that the offense guideline for heroin, cocaine, and crack offenses (“drug trafficking offenses”) is deeply and structurally flawed. As a result, it produces ranges that are excessively severe across a broad range of cases, including this one.
The flaw is simply stated: the Guidelines ranges for drug trafficking offenses are not based on empirical data, Commission expertise, or the actual culpability of defendants. If they were, they would be much less severe, and judges would respect them more. Instead, they are driven by drug type and quantity, which are poor proxies for culpability.
If the Commission wants greater adherence to the Guidelines, as it should, it needs to get better at fixing broken offense guidelines. The drug trafficking offense guideline was born broken. Many judges will not respect it because as long as the sentences it produces are linked to the ADAA’s mandatory minimums, they will be too severe. Indeed, as discussed further below, for almost two decades the nation’s judges have been telling the Commission to de-link the drug trafficking offense guideline from those harsh mandatory minimums and to reduce the sentencing ranges. The Commission should listen and act. It should use its resources, knowledge, and expertise to fashion fair sentencing ranges for drug trafficking offenses. That process will take time. In the meantime, because real people, families, and communities are harmed by the current ranges, it should immediately lower them by a third....
Let those who advocate for longer prison terms, and even a return to the dark days of mandatory Guidelines, go ahead and make their case. The debate is good for the health of our federal criminal justice system. But the suggestion that federal sentences should become more severe in the name of racial equality is preposterous. That case has emphatically not been made, and the Commission’s repeated suggestion that it has insults the entire judiciary and demeans the Commission itself. If it does nothing else, the Commission should take affirmative steps to remove the race issue, which it unwisely inserted into the discussion of federal sentencing policy, from the debate....
The Commission should use its resources, knowledge, and expertise to fashion fair sentencing ranges for drug trafficking offenses. If it does, those ranges will be substantially lower than the ranges produced by the current offense guideline. The deep, easily traceable structural flaw in the current drug trafficking offense guideline produces advisory ranges that are greater than necessary to comply with the purposes of sentencing. We must never lose sight of the fact that real people are at the receiving end of these sentences. Incarceration is often necessary, but the unnecessarily punitive extra months and years the drug trafficking offense guideline advises us to dish out matter: children grow up; loved ones drift away; employment opportunities fade; parents die.
Closer to home, Judge Scola is beaming in testimony from Pakistan. Curt Anderson has the details:
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola approved the unusual testimony in the case of 77-year-old imam Hafiz Khan. The first five witnesses will be questioned beginning Feb. 11 at an Islamabad hotel, and jurors will watch on courtroom TV screens. Scola said Tuesday the arrangement is costing taxpayers about $130,000.
Khan is on trial for allegedly funneling at least $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban, listed by the U.S. as a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. Khan insists the money was for innocent purposes, and the Pakistani witnesses are expected to back that up. If convicted, Khan faces up to 15 years in prison on each of four counts.
At a hearing Tuesday, Khan attorney Khurrum Wahid asked Scola to allow six additional witnesses to testify from Pakistan, over prosecutors' objections. The judge did not immediately rule but seemed inclined to approve the request, noting that an appeals court might toss out any convictions if the trial appears unfair to Khan.
"I don't want to have a second trial. I want to have one fair trial," Scola said.