It has been far too long since the US Sentencing Commission has been fully functional, and this post is my indirect way of saying that I hope getting the USSC back in action with a full slate of Commissioners is a top priority for the Biden Administration. But, given that we still do not yet have a new confirmed Attorney General nearly a month into the new administration, and especially with other business (and other judicial openings) sure to be a higher priority, I am wondering if it may still be months before we can start talking seriously about what the “new Commission” ought to be doing to advance criminal justice reform.
Former Prez Donald Trump’s track record with respect to the US Sentencing Commission was quite spotty. As noted in this April 2017 post, the USSC had only two of seven commissioner slots filled at the start of 2017 (which led the Commission not to advance any formal amendments to the guidelines in that year). Senate confirmation of two nominees gave the USSC a functioning quorum to be able to move forward with 2018 guideline amendments. But a slate of new nominees to the Commission by former Prez Trump in March 2018 were controversial and got a cold shoulder from the Senate leaving the USSC again with only two Commissioners (and thus without a quorum) as it entered 2019. Prez Trump thereafter did not announce new nominees until August 2020 and, according to this recent Law360 piece, those names were never even formally sent to the Senate.
Long story short, the US Sentencing Commission was only somewhat functional for a small portion of the last four years, and the USSC has not had complete set of commissioners firmly in place for the better part of a decade. The USSC staff has completed lots of research and has churned out many reports in the interim, but the FIRST STEP Act’s passage in December 2018 made it particularly problematic for the USSC to have been non-functional in terms of formal amendments or agendas in recent years.
As reveled on this official US Sentencing Commission page, right now the USSC currently has only a single Commissioner and so will need six new confirmed members to be back to full strength (and it needs at least three new commissioners to have a quorum to even be somewhat functional). All these vacancies present Prez Biden with an important opportunity to revive and reshape the work of the Commission at a time when the work of the Commission could and should be especially important. And, as I noted in this post in November, the criminal justice reform recommendations of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (first discussed here; available here pp. 56-62) included this notable recommended agenda for the USSC:
Sentence Length and Early Release: Task the U.S. Sentencing Commission with conducting a comprehensive review of existing sentencing guidelines and statutory sentencing ranges, with the goal of generating legislative recommendations, promulgating new guidelines, and issuing formal guidance to reduce unreasonably long sentences and promote rehabilitation. The Commission should make recommendations regarding early release options, including expanding good time credits, reinstating federal parole, and creating a “second look” mechanism permitting federal judges to reevaluate sentences after a certain amount of time served. Any such options should use a systematic, evidence-based approach that reduces risks to public safety, prevents racially disparate implementation, reduces the total number of people under federal custody and supervision, and limits the duration and conditions of supervision.
I am hopeful that the Biden Administration is already working toward developing a list of nominees for the Commission (which, by statute, have to be bipartisan). I am especially hopeful that the Biden team might be already getting input on this list from key folks in the Senate so that any eventual slate of nominees will be well-received and quickly confirmed. But, as suggested at the outset, because of various competing priorities and the (usual and unusual) inside-the-Beltway distractions, I really do not have a good guess to the question in the title of this post.