Editor’s Note: This is excerpted — with permission — from a detailed examination of Judge Jackson’s record published by RealClearPolitics.
‘Justice demands this result.” That’s what Ketanji Brown Jackson said in 2011 after the U.S. Sentencing Commission knocked as much as three years off the prison terms of crack-cocaine convicts. As vice chair of the commission, Jackson believed the nation’s drug laws were overly harsh and especially “unfair” to blacks.
A month earlier, Jackson had shrugged off Justice Department warnings that the decision — which made more than 12,000 federal crack inmates eligible for early release — could flood the streets with dangerous criminals who would likely reoffend.
“[B]y keeping them in longer, it doesn’t seem to make a difference with regard to whether or not they recidivate,” Jackson reasoned in a June 2011 commission hearing in Washington, according to transcripts reviewed by RealClearInvestigations.
Then-U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose objected: “It does protect the safety of the public, though, when they’re not present to recidivate.”
Unpersuaded, Jackson countered: “But the amount of time in jail doesn’t affect that because there’s no difference. If we keep them in jail for the extra 36 months, or whatever, they’re going to recidivate at the same rate as if we released them early. So I don’t see how public protection is being affected one way or the other in that scenario.”
“Because during the three years they are in prison, they are not out committing new crimes — that’s the difference,” Rose replied, adding that the department had “public safety concerns” over cutting prison terms for so many felons at once.
Now vying for a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court, Jackson has struggled to fend off accusations that she is soft on crime. The Senate confirmation hearings have exposed a pattern: whether as a lawyer, sentencing commissioner, or judge, she has disregarded the warnings or recommendations of prosecutors and investigators while advocating or easing the punishment not just for drug dealers but also child-porn offenders and even accused terrorists.
More Than 31,000 Drug-Traffickers Granted Early Release
While guiding the sentencing commission, Jackson didn’t just resist federal prosecutors’ warnings that granting crack dealers early release would merely put them back in action faster. She also ignored their advice to exclude from eligibility those with firearms in their records. In the end, she sided with NAACP official Hilary O. Shelton, who called crack sentences “racially discriminatory” and demanded the commission “correct this injustice.”
“People of color are being put in prison at much higher rates than their Caucasian counterparts,” Shelton asserted, testifying before the commission alongside Rose.
But Jackson wasn’t satisified with releasing only inmates locked up for dealing crack. In 2014, she helped push a proposal to slash sentencing guidelines for the full array of drug offenses. Several months later, the commission voted to let such inmates apply for the sweeping reductions retroactively — a move that sped the release of tens of thousands more prisoners. Since drug felons make up roughly half the federal prison population, it was arguably the most consequential decision the panel has made in its 38-year history.
All told, more than 31,000 drug-traffickers were granted early release, and most are now back on the streets. Studies show many of them are career criminals whose drug crimes involved guns — like Jackson’s own uncle, Thomas Brown Jr., whose life prison sentence she helped get commuted around the same time.
Jackson assured the public that judges wouldn’t just dump prisoners into communities without first assessing their risk on a case-by-case basis. “Each drug offender is going to have to be evaluated individually in order to determine whether or not, as a result of dangerousness or otherwise, his or her sentence should be reduced,” she said on NPR in July 2014.
In reality, more than two-thirds of all the drug traffickers who asked for early release got it, and virtually all those denied weren’t turned down because they were too dangerous to release, but because they weren’t eligible for release in the first place. An estimated 7,500-plus who received get-out-of-jail passes had used weapons as part of their underlying crimes. One of them was Washington D.C. gang leader Willie Best, sentenced in 2008 for firing a high-powered rifle at a rival drug gang member while sitting in a stolen car. Others had prior robbery, assault and other violent convictions in their records.
Federal probation officers told RCI that the releases happened so fast that their offices were overwhelmed and most of the parolees went straight to the streets without transitioning through halfway houses, which didn’t have bed space for them. They say the mass release has helped drive up crime rates across the country.
“Police worked hard to put these folks away, and because of that, crime rates dropped,” said Greg Forest, chief U.S. probation officer for the Western District of North Carolina.
Partly as a result of the historic prison release engineered by President Biden’s high court nominee, cops and communities are dealing with a surge of repeat crime. So far, more than 1 in 3 — 35% — of the crack inmates released early have reoffended, according to a U.S. Sentencing Commission study conducted in 2020.
Those rearrested after incarceration didn’t just get prosecuted for drug offenses. A large share also committed violent crimes, including child abuse, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, weapons offenses, robbery and even murder.
Read the rest of Paul Sperry’s in-depth investigation here.
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Paul Sperry is an investigative reporter for RealClearInvestigations. He is also a longtime media fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Sperry was previously the Washington bureau chief for Investor’s Business Daily, and his work has appeared in the New York Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Houston Chronicle, among other major publications.