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January 30, 2014

Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote

I just received a notable news release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums concerning a notable vote today by the US Senate Judiciary Committee.  Here are the basic via the FAMM report:

Today, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed the first major reconsideration of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws since the Nixon Administration. The Committee voted, 13-5, in support of S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL).

The Smarter Sentencing Act:

  • Reduces mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenders by half
  • Narrowly increases the scope of an existing “safety valve” exception to federal drug offenses
  • Allows 8,800 federal prisoners imprisoned for crack cocaine crimes to return to court to seek fairer punishments in line with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a unanimously-passed measure to reduce the racially discriminatory disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses
  • Requires the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to compile, and make publicly available on their websites, lists of all federal laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties. This part of the bill addresses growing bipartisan concerns about the issue of “over-criminalization” – that there are too many federal crimes and that people can and do unknowingly and unintentionally break laws and regulations and serve jail or prison time for violations that could be better addressed with fines.
  • Adds new mandatory minimum sentences for sexual abuse, domestic violence, and terrorism offenses

This new piece up at Huffington Post, headlined "Biggest Overhaul in Federal Drug Sentencing in Decades Clears Major Hurdle, Despite Opposition From Heartless Prosecutors," provides more information about who is for and who is against this important legislative development:

Today the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation that reduces the federal prison population, decreases racial disparities, saves taxpayer money, and reunites nonviolent drug law offenders with their families sooner. The reforms are supported by a strange bedfellows group of senators, including Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The legislation is opposed by some U.S. prosecutors who continue to defend a harsh, racially unjust system that has led to a greater percentage of black men being locked up in the U.S. than in South Africa at the height of Apartheid.

The bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, is the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades. It would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and expand the ability of judges to use their own discretion when sentencing defendants, so that judges can consider the unique facts of each case and each individual before them. It would also make the reform to the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that Congress passed in 2010 retroactive, so that thousands of people sentenced under the old draconian and racially unjust disparity can leave prison early.

Even though U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged the committee to reform mandatory minimum sentencing yesterday, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys took the somewhat rare step of opposing the Attorney General by releasing a letter in opposition to reform. "We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction," the organization said. "Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving."

January 30, 2014 at 01:09 PM | Permalink

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Comments

So now what happens and how long before it actually can make differences in lives of those trapped in prison.

Cathy - a family incarcerated by these US attorneys who feel their job is threatened by reductions

Posted by: Cathy | Jan 30, 2014 1:43:54 PM

On what planet is the current sentencing regime "well-constructed"?

Posted by: PDB | Jan 30, 2014 2:30:09 PM

PDB --

On the planet where more incarceration, partly due to stiffer sentencing, has helped push the crime rate to a low point it has not seen for 50 years.

http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/LevittUnderstandingWhyCrime2004.pdf

Sorry, but there IS a relationship between sentencing and crime.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 30, 2014 3:56:49 PM

"Requires the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to compile, and make publicly available on their websites, lists of all federal laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties."

Is there enough room on the Internet for that?

Good news. The Smarter Sentencing Act really is smarter. Maybe the government will not be at war with so many of its citizens now.

Posted by: George | Jan 30, 2014 3:59:31 PM

My goodness. Another liberal claim of victory put together by sweeping important facts under the rug.

After all this bluster, the Committee DID NOT ELIMINATE A SINGLE MANDATORY MINIMUM FOR ANYTHING. To the exact contrary, it ADDED three mandatory minimums: for crimes involving sexual assault, interstate domestic violence, and nuclear export control offenses. It's difficult to imagine a more emphatic endorsement of the central idea here -- that judges STILL need binding instructions from Congress and are not to be trusted with their own frolics.

Anyway,I don't know how many MM's there were when the sun came up this morning, but you now have three more.

Congratulations, guys!

P.S. Of course, nobody really has anything at this point. A committee vote is one part of one process in one chamber. I can't wait for this to get to the House (if it makes it out of the Senate).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 30, 2014 4:16:47 PM

Does this only apply to cocaine/crack charges? Does this include marijuana charges as well?

Posted by: Lola | Jan 30, 2014 4:59:13 PM

Look, there's no question that if you put everyone who commits an offense in jail, you can succeed in lowering the crime rate. I read the study cited by George, and even in this study, the guy admits there's no direct correlation between the use of the drugs and the crimes. I don't understand how ANYONE can be in favor of locking up fellow citizens for life just because they care to imbibe in a substance which has been deemed inappropriate, but not proven to cause harm to others.

Posted by: Mookie | Jan 30, 2014 6:05:06 PM

"Requires the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to compile, and make publicly available on their websites, lists of all federal laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties."

Isn't that already available in the federal criminal code? It's not as if the criminal code is some sort of secret.

Posted by: Domino | Jan 30, 2014 9:42:16 PM

Sure it is Domino. They make it secret via the amount of useless trash you have to wade though to get to any details.

who's going to read a 1,000 page law to find the 2 lines that mention the actual crime and any possible punishment.

Personally I think if you can't define your ideal law down to 1 page. SHUT UP!

we already have a perfect example!

"Thou shall not STEAL!"

"Thou shall nut MURDER"

and so on! Plain and simple. Which of course is why gov't will NEVER get it!

we could can 90% of the law based on those two sentences alone!

simple law!

"If it does not belong to you. It's a felony! amount of prison time upon conviction to be based on the amount stolen!"

"If you take a life and can not justify it to a court of law it's MURDER! amount of prison time upon conviction will be based on a 25 year base minus any time removed based on extenuating evidence."

damn we just removed 200,000 federal and state and local laws!

Of course we also just put 500,000 federal and state employees out of work!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 31, 2014 2:50:30 AM

Mookie makes a very important point that Bill Otis consistently ignores and makes his arguments about the correlation between incarceration rates and drops in crime rates prove way too much. Under Bill's way of thinking, we could lock up all under-privileged African American men convicted of speeding for life, and that would surely result in lower crime rates. There is only a matter of degree between that and taking the position that we should impose draconian sentences on drug (or other sorts of offenders) because they can be identified as members of society the removal of which for a long, long time will result in decreased crime levels. Bill's views boil down to, if you commit a crime you a deserve to get hit with a penalty tax, for being someone -- or a member of a social class -- who society needs less of.

We enter very dangerious territory when we justify incarceration of individuals based principally on keeping overall crime rates down, and lose the focus on closely correlating actual culpability and sentences, let alone taking into account opportunties for rehabilitation. Put differently, there is a sense in which Bill's arguments are more challenging to rebut if believe sentencing policy is about nothing but decreasing crime rates (though there is surely an offset for the havoc over-incarceration does to communities), but god help us if we lose the focus on justice, and adopt (somewhat ironically, given his professed political views) Bill's focus on social engineering. I find it very interesting, but it is actually quite logical, that conservative Republicans -- or "useful idiots" as the increasingly bitter Bill Otis would call them -- are leading the charge on these issues.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 31, 2014 1:52:42 PM

Mark --

"Bill's views boil down to, if you commit a crime you a deserve to get hit with a penalty tax, for being someone -- or a member of a social class -- who society needs less of."

What complete, and scurrilous, tripe. It is my side that insists that criminal culpability rest on behavior alone, and not on membership in any demographic category. It is your side that wants to ignore, dismiss, excuse or in some other way shuffle away from actual behavior to change the subject to something -- anything -- else.

One of your favorite subjects to change to is how anyone who disagrees with you about the seriousness of drug crimes must be -- guess what! -- a racist.

The rote whine of "racism!" is undertaken to muzzle dissent from the liberal orthodoxy and cow opponents into silence. It's The New McCarthyism, only worse: At least Joe McCarthy gave his whole name.

P.S. For anyone actually interested in debate rather than intimidation, there is a reason I point out the link between increased incarceration and decreased crime. The reason is that this link is, incredibly, often denied. There have been numerous claims, including on this forum, that incarceration INCREASES crime, by being a school for thieves or what have you. When I make the point that statistics overwhelmingly refute this claim, people like Mark, whoever he is, have nothing to say but to cry "racist."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 31, 2014 2:36:12 PM

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them … The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.-Pres. Lincoln, Cooper Union Address, 1860.

Posted by: anonymous | Jan 31, 2014 4:48:05 PM

So how does this affect 3 time offenders and when can these inmates go back to court? Will they have to go to court or will the sentencingjust be cut in writing.

Posted by: Robbin Rivers | Jan 31, 2014 8:32:11 PM

As a mother who has a son who ls doing 3o years for crack cocaine how do l learn too live my life again for every one day hes done i have done 2 does this mean imay get a chance too really sleep at night as god be my witness it has b een a long journey i pray god has answered my prayers all i can say is once you have found god you will never be the same lets give god all the glory because he can change the mind s of man mistakes we all made all we want is justice. Thats not too much to ask. Do you agree.

Posted by: Robbin Rivers | Jan 31, 2014 9:53:17 PM

When does this go to the senate? Can you post information on how this will affect those if it does that were considered career criminals using non violent drug charges from their past? Also for anyone to say that these laws are well constructed ... I'm so sure it wasn't with a straight face.. had to be on paper.. Thanks for the information.

Posted by: Goodman | Feb 3, 2014 8:20:24 AM

As for a guy who did federal time and seen bills come and go I just hope these guys don't sit on the bill for another yr th As N they have too start all over with the next congress they need too make this law HAPPENED LIKE NOW!!!!! Ex federal imate ... just been out 2yrs after doing 8yrs

Posted by: rory | Feb 3, 2014 9:46:29 PM

When will this take affect

Posted by: Ms Lian | Feb 4, 2014 2:22:49 AM

What about the state now? I have a brother who is incarcerated and just given a life sentence for marijuana in Alabama. What about the states? They should help everyone. Read about my petition here: https://www.change.org/petitions/gov-robert-bentley-decriminalization-of-possession-of-marijuana-and-abolish-habitual-offender-law-for-non-violent-offenders

Posted by: tami Harrison | Feb 16, 2014 10:38:35 PM

does the fair sentencing act apply to drug offender's that also have gun charges?
thank you

Posted by: kaela | Feb 17, 2014 7:34:51 PM

I am a mother..my 25 yr old son was sentenced to 22 years. For every day he is locked up like an animal, me and my heart are locked up for 10...Im also pulling time right along with my son, cause my heart refuses to allow me to do otherwise!! You see, my son has Epilepsy..GRAN MAL SEIZURES..HE IS MY BABY REGUARDLESS OF HIS AGE!! How can i LIVE my life knowing my son is locked up like an animal and can't live his life??? Please give us back our children...i beg you...

Posted by: Ruby Baeza | Feb 19, 2014 2:12:33 PM

I think the smarter sentencing act is great and I can't wait for it to go into full affect!!!! Some people are getting more time for drugs (especially Blacks) than those who Rape & Kill.... Smh, this crap is crazy but I pray this goes into affect soon and families are reunited much sooner than expected!!!

Posted by: Chyna | Mar 17, 2014 10:57:17 PM

Would there be any relief to the State inmates?

Posted by: Sharon | Mar 18, 2014 4:35:23 PM

I'm interested in knowing if this "Smarter Sentencing Act" or the "Fair Sentencing Act" could help my brother. He was a junkie out to get his drugs for himself, however he could get them, usually by assisting others to get theirs too. He made such a run with others across the state line and made the drug purchase. They returned him to his home then went back across state lines and shared their drugs with another man. The man died after doing the drugs. The drugs used were heroin and cocaine. The men who contributed to the man who died were both sentenced to 5 years apiece. My brother was sentenced to 20 years. he also agreed to turn over the dealer he got them from, who ran into Canada and hasn't been caught yet. The Feds agreed to drop 5 years off his sentence for that. He is still in a maximum security prison and no time has been reduced from his sentence. What else can I do to help him? He didn't deserve this sentence. I'm a family member interested in helping my brother.

Posted by: Sam Davis | Mar 29, 2014 5:54:52 PM

I am a mother of a son who was sent to prison for a mdo of 11 years and 4 years for drug trafficking he is in state prison he didn't hurt anyone but because he did not tell on anyone he has a mandatory sentence of 15 years why doesn't the same bill that passes for federal inmates apply to state inmates. I just don't think its fair

Posted by: Gwandean Harris | Apr 25, 2014 8:50:18 PM

IS SMARTER SENTENCING ACT PASS THE SENATE YET OR WHERE IS IT AT? I WANT TO THANK ALL INVOLE IN GETTING THIS BILL PASS,IT'S VERY IMPORTANT TO GET THIS BILL PASS IT'S THE RIGHT THING TO DO. ;;;;;GOD BLESS AMERICA

Posted by: ROBERT | Jun 9, 2014 4:05:32 PM

I would like to know if this is only going to affect the drug offenders or all other offenders especially the first timers that have been sentenced unfairly

Posted by: angela | Jun 23, 2014 4:04:19 PM

Does this apply to career criminals who have never commited a violent offense?

Posted by: Kelly Blanchard | Jul 18, 2014 10:31:40 PM

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