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February 17, 2015

NY Times editorial laments "The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform" ... while creating another

This lengthy new New York Times editorial spotlights and laments that one powerful Senator now appears to be the main impediment to federal sentencing reform moving forward in Congress.  Here are excerpts:  

For more than a year, members of Congress have been doing a lot of talking about the need to broadly reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population.  It’s an overdue conversation, and one of the few in which Democrats and Republicans find some agreement — but, so far, they have nothing to show for it.

In the last session, senators introduced three bipartisan bills.  Two proposed “front end” reforms, like reducing or eliminating ridiculously long mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes.  The other focused on “back end” fixes, like increasing opportunities for good-­time credit to allow certain prisoners early release.

None of the bills got anywhere, but it was encouraging to see all three reintroduced in the new Republican­-led Senate. At least it was until they ran into a roadblock in the shape of Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa.  Mr. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wields great power over any sentencing legislation....

Mr. Grassley, for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data, has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences.  In a speech from the Senate floor this month, he called the bills “lenient and, frankly, dangerous,” and he raised the specter of high-­level drug traffickers spilling onto the streets.

Mr. Grassley is as mistaken as he is powerful.  Mandatory minimums have, in fact, been used to punish many lower­-level offenders who were not their intended targets. Meanwhile, the persistent fantasy that locking up more people leads to less crime continues to be debunked.  States from California to New York to Texas have reduced prison populations and crime rates at the same time. A report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since 2000 putting more people behind bars has had essentially no effect on the national crime rate.

The bill that appears to have the best chance of passing anytime soon is known as the Corrections Act — that’s actually a sprawling acronym for Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System. Co­sponsored by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, the bill’s name is more ambitious than its goals, which include giving a narrow group of inmates the chance to participate in educational and other programs in exchange for earlier release. (The bill authorizes no financing for these programs, relying instead on, among other things, the volunteer efforts of faith­-based groups.)

Rehabilitation is a laudable aim, and it should be a part of any sentencing reform package. But the Cornyn-­Whitehouse bill would exclude nearly half of all federal prisoners — in many cases without any evidence that they pose a greater risk to public safety.

The bill also relies on an inmate’s criminal history.  This is a legitimate measure when it is used with the awareness that law enforcement disproportionately targets minorities. The danger is that white-­collar prisoners, who are most often white, will receive the law’s benefits, while, say, drug offenders, who are disproportionately African­-American, will be left out.

Finally, the bill pushes the use of data­-based risk­-assessment tools, which sound smart but again — because they rely on factors like a person’s employment history, neighborhood and education level — often have racially disproportionate effects....

Sentencing reform is a big and complicated issue, and may take some time to get right.  It would be a mistake to pass an incomplete bill and pretend that the hard work of reform is done.

Though I obviously laud the New York Times editorial board for complaining about a "roadblock" to reform created by Senator Grassley, I am troubled that this editorial goes on to create some more hurdles of its own through its (somewhat chaotic) criticisms of the Corrections Act. Every possible sentencing reform bill is sure to be an "incomplete bill" from somebody's perspective, but that should never serve alone as a reason to stall any needed reforms. The Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010 was incomplete for only partially reducing the crack/powder disparity and for failing to make its reforms retroactive. But that reform still achieved a lot even though it did not achieve enough. Same goes, in my opinion, for all the sentencing reform bills now making the rounds.

Moreover, as a matter of substance, this editorial hammers Senator Grassley for defiance of empirical data, but that assails the Corrections Act for incorporating "data­-based risk­-assessment tools" and criminal history in its structures for back-end reform.  I fear the NYT editorial board wants policy-makers to be concerned only with the public safety data that it likes and to ignore the public-safety data that might undermine the Grey Lady's own mysterious sense of "fairness."  In this way, this editorial provides still more support for roadblocks to reform because any and everyone concerned about any part of the reform bills are encouraged to let their vision of the best reforms serve as an enemy and hurdle for any and all good and needed reforms.  

February 17, 2015 at 11:05 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Bingo! Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you get something, anything, you can always come back next session.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Feb 17, 2015 7:46:49 PM

Like Ive said before. Grassley has no legal background. Hes old and is just mimicking phrases hes heard or told to say. He should not be on the judiciary committee.

Not qualified. He was poor at the ethonal gig getting inefficient plants built.

Chuck, retire and mow the tard. Something you are capable of doing, perhaps.

Posted by: 187Midwest Guy | Feb 19, 2015 8:10:19 PM

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