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January 31, 2014

Will Tea Party players (and new MMs) be able to get the Smarter Sentencing Act through the House?

I am quite pleased and excited to see that yesterday the Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA)received significant Republican support within in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Senators Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voting in support of significant reforms to modern drug sentencing rules. Given that there are three other Tea Party Caucus Senators (Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), I am relatively hopeful that establishment Republicans may not be able to prevent the SSA's passage in the full Senate.

Unfortunately for supporters of drug sentencing reform, establishment Republicans are in control in the House of Representatives, and I assume House Speaker John Beohner and/or other House leaders could quash the SSA if an whenever they might want. But what I do not know, either practically or politically, is whether establishment Republicans in the House want to kill the SSA and/or whether Tea Party players in the House are as eager to see this bill become law as some in the Senate were.

Adding to the practical and political intrigue is the intriguing fact that, as explained in this article, there are now some new mandatory minimums travelling with the SSA thanks to an amendment by the establishment Republicans on the Senate side:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 by a wide margin Thursday, taking a major step toward reducing mandatory drug-related sentences. Amendments attached to the bill, however, would also establish new mandatory sentences for sex crimes, domestic violence and terrorism.

The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and has significant bipartisan support. Its primary aim is to allow greater sentencing flexibility and would reduce various drug-related mandatory minimums from five, 10 and 20 years to two, five and 10 years. It would also allow prisoners with crack cocaine convictions to have their punishments revisited in light of the 2010 law that lessened penalties for the drug.

In a frustrating blow to some reformers, committee members adopted three amendments from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would add the new minimum sentences. Committee members voted 15-3 to establish a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for federal sexual abuse crimes and 15-3 to created a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for interstate domestic violence resulting in death of the victim.

Though I have a general disaffinity for any new mandatory minimums, I am ultimately pleased by additions to the SSA that Senator Grassley added if they will aid passage of the bill. The drug mandatory reductions in the amended SSA would impact tens of thousands of federal cases every year, whereas the new mandatory minimums would likely impact only a few dozen.  I am hopeful that the added minimums might make it that much easier for establishment Republicans to vote for the SSA and for House leaders to bring the bill up for a vote.  (My gut instinct is that perhaps as many as 300 members of the full House would vote for the amended version of the SSA if it gets to a floor vote, but I remain worried it might never do so because of the establishment Republican forces eager to keep this part of the federal government big.) 

Some recent and older posts about the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

January 31, 2014 at 10:17 AM | Permalink

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Comments

It is strikingly clear that the Tea Party / (Classic) Democratic Libertarian element represents the last chance we have to reform the criminal justice system, not just for sentencing purposes, but for approaching the entire arc of the offense, between committed the crime and final reintegration into the community, coupled with victim retribution and rehabilitation. The mainstream Democrats have a tendency to ignore crime victims' needs through their need to acquire populist votes, while the mainstream Republicans have a tendency to ignore offenders' rights, enforcing more incarceration solutions to both placate their constituents and provide money to their crony-capitalist prison industry "partners." Once this happens, true reform (such as creating a two-phased sentencing paradigm that addresses both victims' rights as well as community/offenders' rights) can be more easily and constitutionally carried out.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jan 31, 2014 12:56:17 PM

I am a mother that is trying to understand the federal sentencing as my son waits for his drug charge sentencing

Posted by: carla lunceord | Feb 19, 2014 11:02:14 PM

I am not so sure republicans are alone in maintaining a relationship with crony capitalists of any and all stripes. In fact, all politicians are getting away with far too much along these lines.

I believe we should add a clause to release anyone with a current mandatory charge once this bill is passed.

Posted by: Mookie | Feb 27, 2014 4:49:15 PM

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