February 10, 2016
Senator Tom Cotton forcefully (and somewhat thoughtfully) makes his case against the current version of SRCA 2015
As reported previously in this post and now again via this new piece from The Hill, a number of Senators are in the midst of a robust conversation about the merits of and concerns about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (which I have called SRCA 2015 since its introduction last fall). Of particular note and importance (and as noted in this prior post), Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton seems to be taking a leading role raising concerns about the current version of the SRCA, and I am now pleased and impressed that Senator Cotton has provide a thorough articulation of his concerns through this new Medium commentary titled "The Current Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is Dangerous for America," and also through this extended speech delivered yesterday on the Senate Floor.
The Medium commentary, which is relatively short, does not do much more than emphasizethe anti-federal-sentencing-reform points already forcefully and repeatedly expressed by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and Bill Otis and others who have been consistent opponents of any changes to the current federal sentencing status quo. But the Senate floor speech is much, much longer and, in my view, in spots much, much more thoughtful in discussing the SRCA and his own perspectives about federal sentencing reform. I highly recommend all persons following federal sentencing reform to read Senator Cotton's lengthy floor speech in full, and here are some of the (many) passages that has led me to describe it as forceful (and somewhat thoughtful):
Today, I want to discuss the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act that has been voted out of the Judiciary Committee. There is much debate about the wisdom of this bill. That is, like most bills we discuss in this chamber, a judgment call. But there cannot be debate over the facts of this bill. We have to be very clear on what this bill, by its own text, is designed to do....
By its text, the bill will not just apply to so-called "non-violent offenders," but to thousands of violent felons and armed career criminals who have used firearms in the course of their drug felonies or crimes of violence.
By its text, the bill will reduce sentences not for those convicted of simple possession, but for major drug traffickers, ones who deal in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of heroin or thousands of pounds of marijuana. And let's be clear: drug trafficking is not "non-violent," as the bill's proponents often claim. It's an industry that's built on an entire edifice of violence, stretching from the narcoterrorists of South America to the drug-deal enforcers on our city streets. If you think dealing drugs on a street corner while armed with a gun is a "non-violent" offense, you probably live in a rich suburb or a gated community....
It's been reported that the bill's sponsors are preparing to release a revised bill, one that would address some of these many shortcomings. Regarding this news, I first want to thank the sponsors for acknowledging that the bill as passed by committee does in fact apply to serious drug traffickers and other violent felons. I look forward to evaluating the new legislative text, and I hope it addresses these problems....
The [US Sentencing] Commission first reduced sentencing guidelines in 2007. It did so again in 2010. And again in 2014. That is three major systemic sentencing reductions in the span of seven years. The result? 46,000 federal convicts will walk from jail early. Wendell Callahan was one among that 46,000. There will be many more like him. And while we pray — against all odds — that none of them go on to commit a triple-murder like Wendell Callahan did, or any other heinous crime, I'm afraid our prayers will go unanswered, at least in part.
The Sentencing Commission is an independent judicial agency that provides uniform sentencing guidance to judges. Congress didn't have a hand in those sentencing reductions. But with the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act, the Senate would impose a fourth major sentencing reduction within eight years — one that is deeper and broader than the reductions imposed by the Sentencing Commission.
This is badly misguided. The Senate would be launching a massive social experiment in criminal leniency without knowing the full consequences of the first three reductions imposed by the Sentencing Commissions. This experiment threatens to undo the historic drops in crime we have seen over the past 25 years....
The Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information. We need to know if this sentencing-leniency bill will return us closer to the days of the `70s and `80s when our cities were besieged by the drug trade, and whole communities were being rotted out as a result. We need to debate sentencing changes with all the data available to us. We need to do this with eyes wide open.
That is why today — together with Senators Hatch, Sessions, and Perdue — I am introducing the Criminal Consequences of Early Release Act. This is a simple, but very needed bill. It will require the federal government to report on the recidivism rates of the 46,000 federal inmates to be released early under the Sentencing Commission's reductions. And it will require the same reporting for any prisoners released early under any future reductions passed by Congress.
The report required by this bill will make clear how many crimes are being committed by released felons. It will make clear what types of crimes — from drug trafficking to assault to robbery to murder — are being committed by these felons. And it will make clear in which states these crimes are occurring.
Currently, this type of data is extremely hard to compile. It is not reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and any information we do have comes through anecdotes and sporadic media reports. Full information on the criminal consequences of early release must be published in detail. Before voting on any bill to reduce sentences, the members of this chamber need to understand fully the criminal consequences of prior sentence reductions....
I want to be clear. To those who support the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act, we are not in full disagreement. Like you, I oppose jail for first-time drug users with no prior record. It's vanishingly rare for such offenders to be prosecuted and jailed in the federal system. But it remains true that the better option for them — particularly if they are addicts — would be drug treatment. Like you, I believe that our prisons should not be an anarchic jungle that is a danger to both prisoners and corrections officers. Like you, I believe that those prisoners who will someday complete their sentences and re-enter society should be given the chance to rehabilitate and redeem themselves while in prison so that they do not recommit crimes once they are released. Like you, I do believe that there exists the possibility of an unjust sentence, one that is so out of proportion that it shocks the conscience.
So I suggest, let's work on that bill. Let's work on a bill that identifies and addresses all first-time drug possession inmates in the federal system, but keeps drug traffickers and other violent offenders in prison to finish their sentences. Let's improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at redemption and a better life. And, if you wish, let's work on a bill to speed the consideration of commutation applications.
If we want to undo unjust sentences, we can help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences. But what we should not do is use the blunt instrument of releasing thousands of violent felons and major drug traffickers. The president has the constitutional power to remedy unjust sentences. But you know what power he doesn't have? The power to bring back to life the victims murdered by prisoners who are released early or sentenced inadequately.
There are a number of statements in the parts of this speech quoted above with which I could take serious issue. In particular, Congress always has authority to block any and every formal decision by the US Sentencing Commission, and the crack-guideline reductions of 2010 were essentially mandated by Congress in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Consequenlty, it is not accurate for Senator Cotton to assert that "Congress didn't have a hand in those sentencing reductions" to drug sentences promulgated by the USSC in recent years. More generally, to assert in blanket terms that "drug trafficking is not 'non-violent'," is no better than asserting in blanket terms that "drug trafficking is non-violent." Some federal drug-traffickers in some settings are extremely violent in doing business. But I have not heard of much violence taking place in all the stores now selling a whole lot of marijuana in Colorado and other states, and I surmise that the ability to purchase this drug in a safe environment is one reason marijuana sales seem to keep going up and up in a number of states.
But, critically, even though Senator Cotton sometimes favors rhetoric over reality in this speech, the basic themes and many particulars he stresses are an important and valuable contribution to the broader debate over federal sentencing reforms. In particular, Senator Cotton is 100% right that our national data on the recidivism rates and realities of federal offenders — not only with respect to those who get sentence reductions, but also for the entire released offender population — leave a lot to be desired and raise more questions than answers. (Indeed, as some readers likely know well, the very term "recidivism" is subject to various definitions in various settings.) I could not agree more with Senator Cotton's statement that the "Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information." Indeed, I have long thought that many of our worst federal sentencing laws enacted in prior decades — e.g., the 100-1 crack/powder disparity, some of our most severe gun possession mandatory minimums — were passed largely based on misinformation about their reach and likely impact.
In addition, I think Senator Cotton merits praise for urging his colleagues to "improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at redemption and a better life," and especially for suggesting "work on a bill to speed the consideration of commutation applications" in order to "help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences." As long-time readers know, many sentencing reform advocates (myself included) have been advocating for Presidents of both parties to make much broader and more constitent use of the "constitutional power of pardon and commutation." I think it is both quite heartening and significant that now the Senate's most vocal opponent of proposed sentencing reforms is sincerely calling for President Obama (and future presidents) to use the clemency power to remedy any and all federal sentences that appear to the President to be "manifestly unjust."
February 10, 2016 at 11:52 AM | Permalink
"we can help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences"
any details to that?
Posted by: Joe | Feb 10, 2016 12:06:13 PM
I would like to further discuss the changes to the armed career criminal act and the overall disgust I share in how it works as a revolving door to make money versus rehabilitate prisoners. There are many prisoners that are a product the Federal Government that are not a danger but a dollar sign. Their lives get thrown away and it is a tragedy in the judicial system.
Posted by: Ann | Feb 10, 2016 12:34:37 PM
bull shit, and the fact that they want to make changes considering firearm as violent I believe firearm goes with protection that should be on a case by case
Posted by: Student | Feb 10, 2016 1:19:38 PM
He is not adding anything to the debate. This is the problem today: everyone applauds adding to the debate, but if you keep debating, it is just words. Actions speak louder than words.
Much of his criticism is off the mark. There is already a significant amount of data, decades of it. I doubt Sen. Cotton has ever even visited the Bureau of Justice Statistics website.
And the appeal to emotions, to the victims, that is just petty. Yes, victims deserve justice, but two wrongs don't make a right. There comes a point when over punishment can and does over punish and thus victimize the offender. I appreciate that this does not have the emotional and moral appeal of the 1st victim, but, again, two wrongs dont make a right. Only in America is it so one sided.
As for the high recidivism rates, I do agree with Sen. Cotton, however, that as long as there is a lack of education and potential anti-discrimination legislation or federal expungement provisions that the risk of re-offending by many ex-offenders is high but most of the re-offending, based on BJS statistics, is due to technical probation violations (like breaking curfew) and small things. The expungement provision, which was in the Sentencing Reform legislation in Section 211 has been taken out. There is an expungement provision in the REDEEM Act but it is dead in committee.
Oh well. Nice try I guess. Shame on Sen. Cotton!
Posted by: Booker and Gall but Guidelines Still Rule | Feb 10, 2016 6:27:30 PM
Cotton is a pompas Ass, we donot want people like him in a position if power.
Posted by: MidWestGuy | Feb 10, 2016 10:28:03 PM
Cotton speaks of offenders completing their full sentence so they can be rehabilitated.
Prison doesnt rehabiltate, the feds retain them so long they no longer have teeth or the strength or brain power to do much at all.
They warehouse people. He assumes that everyone in federal orison is violent and stands on a corner with a gun. Good enough, then they fet racked with a gun bump.
This guy has a paper @sshole and should be shunned along with 86 yr chuck Grassley who has been listening to Bill Otis as he doesnt know squat about the guidelines.
The drug warriors say they need the Mandatories to fight terriorist and large king pins.
Good enough, then make ut so the mandatories only apply to these offenders, not the entire United States. People in rural communities get wacked with the same obscene sentences that hardened dealers get in the projects. Feds have gone too far. The states should be handling most drug cases unless they need help crossing state lines nd that is rare.
Posted by: MidWestGuy | Feb 10, 2016 10:41:50 PM
Cotton's great great grandpa got the name cause he was a cotton picker. Cotton ought to go back to pickin.
Posted by: JackMehoff | Feb 14, 2016 10:34:11 AM
Is Grasseley only 86? He sounds older.
Posted by: JackMehoff | Feb 14, 2016 10:35:17 AM