With everything else happening over the last week, Donald Trump’s list of names to fill slots on the federal Sentencing Commission got little attention in press or on social media. But after weeks of protesting police brutality, the work of that commission goes to another hugely important aspect of law enforcement and public safety—the sentences handed down to those convicted of a crime. These sentences often disguise racist agendas and can be vastly disproportional. But when federal judges are looking for recommended sentencing guidelines, or Congress is considering changes in criminal laws, or agencies are setting policies, they all look to the same place: The sentencing guidelines produced by the Sentencing Commission. Those guidelines can also be used to extend the sentences of prisoners already behind bars … or to set them free.
As the nation is finally recognizing the importance of Juneteenth, and still protesting the police murder of George Floyd and others, what Trump is doing to the Sentencing Commission can’t be overlooked. All but one of his nominees are men, every single nominee is white, and they seem poised to roll back rules that made sentencing more fair and equitable.
In 2014, the Sentencing Commission put together by President Barack Obama voted unanimously to reduce sentencing guidelines. As NPR reports, the result of that decision, was a 50,000 person decline in the federal prison population over the last seven years. 46,000 people who were in prison at the time saw their sentences cut short. But that decline could be reversed if Trump’s reconfigured commission does what they’re expected to do—flip the guidance made under Obama and beef up the sentences to levels that Trump considers “just.”
One of Trump’s nominees has already had to step away. Former federal prosecutor William Otis made a whole series of statements that were both racist, and simply wrong. Among other things, Otis made a “bold” defense of locking up more Black men saying that it was not caused by racism. And he wrote a blog post explaining why “Orientals stay out of jail” (that tribute to “Orientals” made in 2013, not 1913). And Otis defended a claim that “blacks and Hispanics are more violent than whites” as “true.” Reminder: Though he’s not going to be on the commission, Otis was already a federal prosecutor.
But even if Otis is no longer on the short list, that list doesn’t seem to wander far from his opinions. Those remaining on the proposed commission include District Judge Henry Hudson, whose nickname is “Hang Em High Henry” and who told The Washington Post, “I live to put people in jail.” Also included are the former head of DEA under George Bush, and the director of a legal center named for Reagan’s Attorney General, Edwin Meese. The single woman on the list is a Kentuckian who only became a federal judge three years ago with the support of, of course, Mitch McConnell.
“The administration has put forth a slate that is all white, mostly male, and lacking in diverse experiences or backgrounds,” said Civil Rights activist Sakira Cook.
These are the people who will be determining what those up for federal charges—people who are disproportionately Black—will face if convicted of a crime. Judges, politicians, and parole boards will all look to their work for guidance. These aren’t lifetime appointments, but the consequences of their decisions can certainly last a lifetime.