Conaboy’s Sense Of Justice
Like many judges, Richard P. Conaboy viewed sentencing as among the most difficult of all judicial decisions.
Before his death Friday at 93, Conaboy had served long enough on the Lackawanna County common pleas and the U.S. district court benches in Scranton to experience both ends of that decision-making spectrum. He began his career in the 1960s when judges had nearly unfettered discretion and produced an infinitely wide range of sentences for similar defendants. And, he was on the federal bench when Congress over-corrected for that and prevented judges from fitting sentences to each case’s different circumstances, often resulting in needlessly draconian sentences.
But unlike most judges, Conaboy had a chance to do something about it, and he did not waste it.
Conaboy became chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the mid-1990s and worked tirelessly in that position to correct grotesquely unfair disparities in the mandatory sentences for convictions related to powder and crack cocaine — forms of the same drug.
In 1986 Congress, in a panic over drug-related crime in major cities, mandated crack-related sentences at a 100-to-1 ratio to those for powder cocaine-related sentences. Someone convicted of possessing 1 gram of crack would receive the same sentence as someone convicted of possessing 100 grams of powder. The rationale was that more violent crime was tied to crack, but the result was that the vastly longer sentences fell disproportionately on minority defendants.
Conaboy did not convince Congress during his chairmanship, but he did not give up the fight. He prodded the commission to continue the effort after he left, and it did so. Finally, in 2010, Congress passed a law reducing the sentencing ratio from 100-1 to 18-1. Though Conaboy wanted a 1-1 ratio, the change was significant, all the more so because the sentencing commission decided in 2011 to apply the new standard retroactively to anyone who had been sentenced before 2010 — 12,000 people, 85 percent of whom were African-Americans.
That was just one aspect of Conaboy’s service, but it is a fine legacy illustrating a keen sense of fairness that is a tribute to him as a person and a judge.