The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent judicial agency created by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, promulgates sentencing guidelines in federal criminal cases and aggregates data about federal sentences. Recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s service on the commission garnered much attention during her recent confirmation hearings. Though the commission is a virtual shell now, with only one out of seven voting positions filled (it requires a quorum of at least four members to take any formal action), its staff continues to provide valuable data about drugs, firearms, and immigration that help explain current crime trends.
The commission’s recently issued 2021 annual report, for instance, identifies drug cases as the largest group of federal cases for 2021. Methamphetamine prosecutions account for almost half of those cases. Though the threat of opioids and heroin remains high, methamphetamine presents a different kind of menace. Heroin is a central nervous system depressant; addicts use it and nod off. Methamphetamine, particularly crystal meth, is an explosive and addictive stimulant. Users smoke, inject, or snort meth, then act out in violent and unpredictable ways.
The Sentencing Commission’s information about the prevalence of methamphetamine thus provides important clues about the general rise of violent crime in the United States, particularly homicides. People using meth are exponentially more inclined to chemically aided violence than heroin users. The rise in meth use may even help explain the increase in deadly violence against police, with intentional killing of police officers reaching a 20-year high in 2021. Instead of dealing with doped-up heroin addicts, cops are interacting with hopped-up meth heads—“tweakers,” in law enforcement parlance—who are much more likely to attack and injure police officers.
In addition to drug crimes, the Sentencing Commission reports statistics about prosecution of illegal aliens. Critics from both parties have called the U.S. southern border porous and in crisis. Data from the Sentencing Commission appear to back up that assessment, noting that immigration prosecutions have declined “by more than one-third . . . from 2020.” Once again, the staff of this leaderless agency has provided valuable data.
The Sentencing Commission also has been conducting a long-term study on recidivism for those who commit federal crimes. In the 2021 annual report, the commission announced that firearms offenders relapsed at a higher rate than all other offenders, with almost 70 percent of firearm offenders being rearrested within eight years of release. Federal firearms offenders generally are criminals convicted of being felons-in-possession of firearms or carrying a firearm related to another crime, like drug trafficking or bank robbery. Put into terms applicable to the modern-day criminal justice system, the Sentencing Commission’s findings on recidivism demonstrate that criminals who carry guns are extremely dangerous and highly likely to commit more crimes. Progressive prosecutors like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner who have decided that arresting people illegally carrying guns is not worthwhile should read up on the commission’s findings. They might understand why homicides are spiking in their cities.
The Biden administration, already running behind in filling critical criminal justice positions, should consider filling the voting seats on the Sentencing Commission with clear-thinking, experienced nominees who can help reverse the surge of violent crime around the country. Meantime, the agency’s staff should keep recording and reporting the truth.