Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
New federal sentencing guidelines go into effect today, raising or reducing the time that drug offenders spend in prison depending on the quantity of drugs involved or the role the defendant played in the crime.
Last week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to temporarily implement changes Congress made to the guidelines when the Fair Sentencing Act was passed into law over the summer.
The guidelines are used by federal judges to give a range of possible sentences in criminal cases.
The Fair Sentencing Act is intended to equalize sentencing in cases involving crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.
Federal sentences have been much stiffer in crack-cocaine cases. Advocates argued that that punished African-American defendants, who often dealt in crack cocaine more than powder, more harshly than white suburban users of powder cocaine.
The temporary amendment may become permanent when the commission meets in May and votes on finalizing the changes.
In Colorado, U.S. Attorney John Walsh says his prosecutors are still evaluating the new guidelines but that he doesn't expect to see notable changes in sentencing in drug cases.
"The impact this will have on our cases as a group is less than it would be in those jurisdictions where they are bringing smaller crack cases," Walsh said. "Our focus has always been on major drug trafficking. While they have an impact, we don't think they are going to have a dramatic impact."
The old guidelines triggered a five-year mandatory minimum prison term if a defendant had 5 grams or more of crack cocaine.
The new law increased the mandatory-five-year-minimum trigger to 28 grams of crack.
For a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence under the old guidelines, defendants needed only to possess 50 grams of crack; now, the triggering quantity is 280 grams.
While the mandatory-minimum changes may have a fairer result for some defendants, other changes to the drug sentencing guidelines could mean longer prison time for others.
The new guidelines add several months of prison time for "aggravating factors" for leaders of drug rings who coerce or intimidate a girlfriend or elderly family member to deal drugs.
The guidelines could also give reductions for low-level offenders who were intimidated into working in a drug business.
Raymond Moore, Colorado's federal public defender, called the guideline changes a "political compromise" that doesn't go far enough to achieve fairness in sentencing.
"The effect of those additions may well offset the meager gains for the crack defendants and will undoubtedly increase the guideline range for a variety of noncrack defendants," he said. "I am not Nostradamus, but my guess is that all the telling of the reduction in the guideline range will be more illusory than real and for some it will go up."