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Biden puts forward diverse slate of nominees for U.S. sentencing commission

U.S. District Chief Judge Debra M. Brown, left, jokes with District Judge Carlton Reeves for the Southern District of Mississippi, right, his law clerk George Brewster, second from left, and student James Minor, following a "gavel passing ceremony" in Greenville, Miss., Friday, June 11, 2021.
Rogelio V. Solis
/
AP
U.S. District Chief Judge Debra M. Brown, left, jokes with District Judge Carlton Reeves for the Southern District of Mississippi, right, his law clerk George Brewster, second from left, and student James Minor, following a "gavel passing ceremony" in Greenville, Miss., Friday, June 11, 2021.

Updated May 11, 2022 at 1:07 PM ET

The White House is nominating seven lawyers for posts on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan panel that helps set policies for punishing people convicted of federal crimes.

The panel has lacked enough members to do important work since 2019, and criminal justice advocates had pushed the Biden administration to act for more than a year.

The diverse slate of picks includes Mississippi U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves, who is in line to be the first Black person to serve as chairman. Judicial opinions by Reeves on the history of racial discrimination and abuses by law enforcement have drawn national attention in the legal community.

Longtime federal public defender Laura Mate is in line to serve as vice chairwoman of the panel.

Among the other nominees for the commission is retired federal judge John Gleeson, who now works in private legal practice and speaks out about racial disparities in punishments for drug crimes.

Conservative-leaning nominees are also represented in the new list. Claire McCusker Murray served as principal deputy associate attorney general in the Trump administration and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and for now Justice Brett Kavanaugh, when he served on a lower appeals court.

"The agency has been the source of some of the most meaningful reforms of the past 10 years," said Mary Price, general counsel of the group FAMM, which advocates for people in prison and their families. "These reforms have reduced excessive federal drug sentences for tens of thousands of people. Confirming these nominees to the Sentencing Commission can and should be the first step to building on that progress."

The paralysis at the Sentencing Commission has also drawn reaction from members of the Supreme Court — and from Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, the acting chairman, who's implored the Biden White House to act.

Breyer has been expressing special concern about the courts' inability to follow through on a criminal justice law known as the First Step Act, which expanded the ability of people in prison to apply for compassionate release.

In a written statement Wednesday, he welcomed the announcement about new nominees.

"A reconstituted Sentencing Commission is vital to ensuring fairness and effectiveness of federal sentencing guidelines and policy," Breyer said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 12, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Claire McCusker Murray's name.