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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Sessions Promotes Tough-On-Crime Judge for Sentencing Panel

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging the White House to nominate a federal judge and tough-on-crime ex-prosecutor once nicknamed “Hang ’Um High” Henry Hudson to an independent, bipartisan panel that issues sentencing guidelines.
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By

Beth Reinhard

WASHINGTON—Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging the White House to nominate a federal judge and tough-on-crime ex-prosecutor once nicknamed “Hang ’Um High” Henry Hudson to an independent, bipartisan panel that issues sentencing guidelines.

Mr. Sessions’ recommendation for one of three openings on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, confirmed by people familiar with the process, reflects the Justice Department’s broader crackdown on violent crime, including the reversal of several Obama -era policies.

The department is urging the commission to toughen sentences for certain violent criminals, drug offenders, illegal immigrant smugglers and so-called career offenders.

In its annual report to the commission, the department asked it to preserve the long, mandatory-minimum sentences that supporters say help fight crime but critics say inflate prison costs and disproportionately hurt minority communities without improving public safety.

President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to “restore law and order,” has the authority but is under no requirement to fill two Republican vacancies and one Democratic spot on the seven-seat commission.

Judge Hudson, who has acknowledged his colorful nickname, was a candidate for FBI director earlier this year. He is best known for sending pro-football quarterback Michael Vick to prison in 2007 for running a dogfighting ring and for finding unconstitutional a key provision of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to serve on the commission,” Judge Hudson, who serves in the U.S. District Court in Richmond, Va., said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I’d like to make sure the guidelines are fair and consider every possible factor in a case.”

Mr. Hudson would be the first new commission member tapped by Mr. Trump, who has reappointed two members previously nominated by former President Barack Obama. A White House official declined to discuss Mr. Hudson’s prospects, but said the administration is committed to filling all federal vacancies.

The Sentencing Commission, which sets penalty guidelines for federal crimes, was created in 1984 to address complaints that judges across the country were imposing widely disparate sentences on defendants who were guilty of the same offenses.

Mr. Hudson would be expected to shake up the low-profile but powerful panel, which has produced research on the prison population, recidivism and sentencing that advocates have cited in pressing for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.

In its most consequential decision in recent years, the commission in 2014 rolled back penalties for most federal drug offenses, allowing more than 30,000 inmates to seek reduced sentences and helping to trim the federal prison population for the first time in decades.

That trend is expected to reverse under Mr. Sessions, a former U.S. attorney and senator from Alabama. After a string of major overhauls of Obama administration policies that sought to curb potential abuses by police and prosecutors Mr. Sessions is now seeking to make his mark on the sentencing commission.

“That is the place where the biggest sentencing reforms have been made in Washington, in that nothing the White House or Congress has done comes close,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which favors judicial discretion in sentencing. “This little agency is a big deal and Sessions wants to exercise his influence, which is shaping up into a fight. ”

Among Mr. Sessions’ recommendations is a proposal that the Sentencing Commission reduce the quantity of fentanyl, an opioid, that triggers a sentence of 10 to 16 months for possession with intent to sell. Stiffer penalties weren’t one of a slate of recent proposals made by the president’s task force on opioids, which included expanding treatment through the Medicaid program.

Mr. Sessions’ embrace of mandatory-minimum sentences is at odds with a nationwide trend in states led by both Republicans and Democrats toward lighter punishments, especially for nonviolent drug offenders, and better rehabilitation programs. The attorney general is backed by police unions and groups representing prosecutors, who depend on the threat of harsh sentences to gain cooperation from drug dealers.

“Eliminating mandatory minimums doesn’t seem like a way to resolve the opioid crisis,” said Larry Leiser, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “Mandatory minimums provide the incentive the law enforcement community relies on to go up the food chain and go after the most serious traffickers.”

Mr. Hudson declined to comment on his own sentencing of some defendants to decadeslong mandatory-minimum sentences. “I’m anxious to hear the debate and hear everyone’s viewpoint,” he said. “I won’t come to the sentencing commission with any preconceived notions.”

In a 2007 memoir titled “Quest for Justice,” Mr. Hudson recalled that police in Arlington, Va., wore campaign buttons that said “I voted for “Hang ’Em High Henry” during his re-election campaign as a state prosecutor in the early 1980s.

“I didn’t reject that nickname, nor did I solicit it,” he said Thursday. “My record as a judge speaks for itself.”

As a state prosecutor in liberal-leaning northern Virginia, Mr. Hudson shut down adult bookstores and massage parlors. That led to his chairmanship of former President Ronald Reagan’s national commission on pornography, which linked porn to violence. He was director of the U.S. Marshals Service during the 1992 deadly siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

He also stirred controversy for prosecuting a mentally disabled man for the murder of a woman in 1984. David Vasquez served five years in prison before DNA and other evidence exonerated him.

“I certainly wish him the best and regret what happened,” Mr. Hudson wrote in his memoir, saying he remained convinced of his involvement in the murder. “However, I offer no apologies.”

Write to Beth Reinhard at beth.reinhard@wsj.com

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