Sessions tapped for federal position
By THATCHER MOATS staff writer | April 22,2009
Judge William Sessions, who was nominated Monday to be chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, hopes to continue reforming federal sentencing guidelines to address prison overcrowding.
"We're at a particular point in history where prisons are incredibly overcrowded," Sessions said. "We're also at a particular point in time in which there's a potential for real change."
Sessions is the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Vermont and has been a federal judge in Vermont since 1995. He was nominated by President Barack Obama, but will still need to be confirmed by the Senate, a process that he said can be highly political.
Sessions, who made national headlines in 2002 when he declared the death penalty unconstitutional, is currently a vice chairman of the commission, which sets sentencing policy for the United States and advises Congress and the executive branch on crime policy.
Each year the commission issues a manual with guidelines that judges use to help determine the length of sentences. The guidelines were first published in 1987 and the commission has continually reformed them since then, including changing the crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines that took effect last year.
Options other than standard incarceration should be used more to address prison overcrowding, Sessions said. That includes drug treatment courts, placement in home confinement or community confinement, and split sentences in which part of a sentence is served in prison and part is served in the community.
Sessions also hopes to make rehabilitation a higher priority in federal sentences.
"For the last 15 years there's been little interest in rehabilitation," Sessions said.
Instead, punishment has been the priority.
"A person commits a crime, and they get X," he said. "We're going back to, 'How do we get these people rehabilitated so when they get out of prison, they're not a danger?'"
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. said he hopes Sessions wins unanimous confirmation in the Senate, and the Vermont senator's position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee could help Sessions' confirmation.
But it could still be a tough process.
"I had a more difficult time getting confirmed (for the sentencing commission) than for my judgeship," said Sessions, who has been on the commission since 1999. "It's very political."
Though the sentencing commission creates guidelines for the federal system, Sessions said state judicial systems often take their cues from the federal guidelines.
One of the sentencing commission's most high-profile moves was when it altered the crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines, a change that went into effect last year.
The first guidelines were written amid the crack wars of the 1980s, so the sentences for crack were unusually harsh, Sessions said. The ratio of the sentences between crack cocaine and powder cocaine was 500 to 1, he said, which unfairly affected African Americans, who are the subject of 80 percent of crack prosecutions.
When the sentencing commission first proposed changes to the crack cocaine guidelines, Congress was furious, Sessions said.
"Congress was so upset with the commission that no one reappointed any of the commissioners. The commission had no commissioners for two years," Sessions said.
Later, the sentencing commission was successful in reforming the crack sentencing guidelines by taking a more incremental approach, Sessions said. The crack cocaine reforms were retroactive, so the sentences were changed for roughly 20,000 federal prisoners who were already incarcerated.
"To order the federal court system to re-sentence 20,000 people and reduce their sentences by two to three years was a major deal," Sessions said.
The effort also showed Sessions that an incremental approach — along with consensus-building prior to formally proposing sentencing changes — is the key to getting acceptance from Congress.
Sessions has served as a U.S. District judge for the District of Vermont since 1995.
During the murder trial of Donald Fell, whom a jury sentenced to death for the killing of a North Clarendon woman, Sessions ruled that the federal death penalty statute was unconstitutional. Prosecutors had agreed to a plea deal that would have granted Fell a term of life in prison, but John Ashcroft, the attorney general at the time, overruled the prosecutors' decision, insisting that they seek death.
Sessions' ruling was overturned in 2004 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
As the chairman, Sessions said he would have more control over the direction the commission takes. The chairman sets the agenda and the policy, and speaks before Congress, Sessions said.
"You're the face of the commission," he said. "If you have a real conservative chair, sometimes the perception is that the sentencing commission is real conservative, and vice versa."