Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Intriguing comments about the politics and persons around FIRST STEP Act and federal criminal justice reform efforts

The Marshall Project has this notable new Q&A under the full headlined "Van Jones Answers His Critics: The CNN host defends his involvement with a controversial prison reform bill and the Trump White House." I recommend the piece in full, and here are snippets reflecting intriguing parts of Jones's thoughtful perspective on the politics and people impacting federal criminal justice reform efforts:

[W]e need a stable bipartisan consensus to undo mass incarceration. In order to get there, we have to break this logjam that existed under President Barack Obama and in Congress. When we had Obama in the White House and [former U.S. Attorneys] Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch in the Department of Justice, we had a pretty robust bill that I fought tooth and nail to try to get passed. It had sentencing reform, prison reform, and every other kind of reform in there. In the fall of 2016, a bunch of people said, “Well, let's not pass this right now. The Democrats are going to have an epic victory. We'll have Hillary Clinton, more Democrats, and we can get an even better bill.” You see what happened. The lesson I learned from that was take the reform you can get when you can get it and keep going....

[Debates over which bill to support] became more of a split between some of the inside-the-Beltway organizations that have a particular worldview that is important, versus a lot of the grassroots groups who are really dealing on a daily basis with incarcerated people looking at the actual content of the bill. There were black people and white people on all sides of that. So as somebody who has been frontline 25 years on criminal justice, you would want people to give you the benefit of the doubt. But if folks choose not to, that's just called democracy.

I get outraged when people like Topeka Sam, an African American woman who was incarcerated, brings a dozen formerly incarcerated women to the White House to advocate for reform and is attacked. I get outraged when Shaka Senghor, who did 19 years in prison and almost 10 years in solitary confinement, speaks up for the bill and gets attacked. On Facebook they were called sellouts, Uncle Toms. I don't think it's appropriate when formerly incarcerated African Americans are vilified this way....

Where is this strong bipartisan coalition for sentencing reform [that some claim exists]? I know that they were able to get the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act out of committee in judiciary, which is good on the Senate side, but there is zero chance that that bill is going to be brought for a vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in its present form, and there’s not even a strategy to get McConnell to check it out, that I can tell. A lot of the Republicans do want sentencing reform, but they can't start there with a critical mass of their other colleagues.

I think that because this is one of the very few areas of bipartisan agreement, there will be multiple opportunities to come back again on criminal justice reform and to make progress.... I would love to see sentencing reform. Fought for it my whole life. Fought for it before it was popular. I just didn't understand why some people in the Senate want us to try to carry a camel through a keyhole in the House. If they have the votes to get sentencing reform in the Senate, God bless them. We couldn't find those votes in the House. We had to carry through the House what we could carry through the House. Nobody would be happier than me to see sentencing reform taken up by either chamber. But we had to get through the House what we could get through the House.

Here's the irony: If sentencing reform does now get taken up, or it's introduced as a part of the First Step Act, or there's some amalgamation between the two and something does get passed with sentencing reform in it, it will only get passed because we got something more modest through the House first.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

"What Tocqueville Would Think of Today’s Criminal Justice Reforms"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting commentary authored by Emily Ferkaluk which leans on a historic figure while advocating for the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are excerpts:

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who toured American penitentiaries at the height of the 19th-century penal debate in order to help guide French penal reform, would commend us for the reform measures contained in the First Step Act.

In his report, “On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France,” Tocqueville stressed that any criminal justice reform must moderately balance two goals: preserving the rights of society, and preserving the rights of prisoners.  Society, he argued, has a right to promote and protect public safety and order by punishing those who break the law—and to regain at least some of the money it spends in doing so.  On the other hand, the prisoner has a right to an education that prepares him to re-enter society as a productive citizen.

Both rights are preserved through the right application of corrective justice — a balance of proportional retribution and rehabilitation.  The First Step Act protects both of these rights—the rights of society and of the prisoner — by proposing a recidivism program that conducts risk assessments of prisoners.  These assessments would weigh the likelihood of individual prisoners recommitting a crime....

Furthermore, time credit programs that are joined to a risk assessment system work because they let wardens and prison administrators determine whether a prisoner presents a low risk to the community.  Tocqueville would have approved of this kind of localized authority.  In fact, during his visit to America, he was pleasantly surprised at the amount of authority the superintendent of prisons wielded over prison discipline.  He believed superintendents were best suited to make those decisions, being the closest to prisoners and having observed their behavior and reformation.

Tocqueville also identified certain types of incentives that truly rehabilitate prisoners — particularly family-oriented incentives. His interviews with prisoners in solitary confinement in the Philadelphia Penitentiary led him to remark that “memories of their family have an extreme power over their souls,” thus disposing them to rehabilitation.

These very incentives are present in the First Step Act. One incentive is to be relocated to a facility closer to home. Another is to enroll prisoners in a program that gives them “family relationship building, structured parent-child interaction, and parenting skills.”  A third option is to allow certain prisoners to go home for pre-release custody.  All of these cohere with Tocqueville’s findings....

When Tocqueville was first inspecting American penitentiaries, only a handful of states (predominantly New York and Pennsylvania) had begun to implement new prison disciplines such as solitary confinement and prison labor.  These penal disciplines proved effective, and despite their relative newness, Tocqueville recommended the French adopt the same disciplines.

Tocqueville preferred democratic politics to theory, and action in one direction over endless debate.  Commenting on the penal reforms made by the people through their state legislatures, he said, “Perhaps this prudent and reserved reform, effected by an entire people, whose entire habits are practical, will be better than the hasty trials that would result from the enthusiasm of ardent minds and the seduction of theories.”

Tocqueville’s words of wisdom should encourage us to pass the proposed recidivism reform measures without fear of killing any future criminal justice reform.  This first step toward penal reform is not our last.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Large group of former prisoners urge Senate leaders to move forward with FIRST STEP Act

As reported in this article from The Hill, a "group of 40 former state and federal inmates is pushing Senate leaders to take up the White House-backed prison reform bill that has divided Democrats and liberal groups, as well as GOP senators." Here is more:

In a letter Wednesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the former prisoners argue the First Step Act, while modest, offers some meaningful reforms....

The former inmates say they know the bill isn’t perfect, but it’s something. “All of us would change the bill in different ways and many of us wished it addressed excessive federal mandatory minimum sentences,” they wrote.  “But we also know that the bill would provide some long overdue relief and hope to more than 180,000 people in federal prison and millions of their family members and loved ones on the outside.”...

Supporters of prison reform say demands for all or nothing is the wrong approach. “We’ve been disturbed by some of the comments we’ve heard that doing nothing is better than doing something and that is not at all what we hear from the tens of thousands of prisoners we’re in touch with,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families against Mandatory Minimums, who spent one-and-a-half years in federal prison. “It’s also inconsistent with our own experiences being in federal prisons and knowing how much reform is needed. Waiting to do anything until you get everything is deeply misguided.”

The full letter and the list of signatories is available at this link. Here is an excerpt of a missive that merits a full read:

Despite the bill’s clear benefits, we have heard some people suggest it would be better for Congress to do nothing rather than pass this bill.  Such talk reflects a disturbing detachment from the hardships that so many families are experiencing today because of our counterproductive federal sentencing and prison policies.

While we do not claim to speak for all people who are serving time in federal prison or their families, we (or the organizations at which we work) are in touch with tens of thousands of these incarcerated individuals and their families every week.  Many of us still have friends and loved ones behind bars.  The people we talk to have no use for abstract debates about whether to pass comprehensive or narrow reform, speculative theories about how passing reform today might impact future reform or, worst of all, political gamesmanship.  These families just need some help.  They shouldn’t have to wait any longer.

We also know from our personal experience that meaningful programming, educational, and job training opportunities in the federal system are lacking.  All too often people are warehoused for decades with no hope.  We know that too many parents are incarcerated so far away from their children that they rarely get to visit them — just imagine seeing your kids once or twice a year, if that.  Going without the hugs and kisses of our loved ones for weeks and months was the most difficult part about being in prison.  We know others who have gone for years without that critical physical contact.  We also know that the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ incorrect calculation of good time credit has deprived people of shortening their lengthy prison sentences.  If anyone tells you these reforms are not “real” or “meaningful” to vulnerable families and individuals across the country, they simply don’t know what they are talking about.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Disconcerting update on Senate's (lack of) progress on federal statutory criminal justice reforms

The Hill this morning has this extended article under the headline "Senate grapples with prison reform bill." The piece reinforces my fear that criminal justice reform efforts are on the brink of stalling in the upper chamber of Congress. Here are excerpts:

Senate negotiators are warning they are not close to a deal that would allow the prison reform bill to move quickly.

Instead, the fight is pitting two influential GOP senators — Cornyn and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman — against each other as they jockey for competing bills. “We’ve got work to do here on building consensus … but right now we don’t have it,” Cornyn said last week about what happens to prison reform in the Senate.

The GOP divisions could scuttle any chance that the Trump-backed legislation becomes law this year, with leadership unlikely to bring up legislation that would highlight divisions within their own party ahead of the midterm elections. Both Cornyn and Grassley are signaling they plan to press forward with trying to build support for their own separate bills once the Senate returns to Washington, D.C., next week.

Asked if he would budge on his opposition to a prison reform–only bill, Grassley responded, “No.” “We’re going to take up my bill. Or I should say, my bipartisan bill that’s got 28 co-sponsors — equal number Republicans and Democrats....  What the House does through that legislation is about the equivalent of a spit in the ocean compared to what the problem is of too much imprisonment,” Grassley added.

Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat, have introduced broad criminal justice reform legislation that would pair prison reforms to changes in sentencing, including reductions in mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses while increasing mandatory minimums for other offenses. Both senators say they’ve made a deal not to separate the prison and sentencing reform components despite pressure from the White House. But that bill is unlikely to be taken up given GOP control of Congress and opposition from key members of the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was an outspoken opponent of the criminal justice reform bill when he served in the Senate.

Grassley acknowledged that he has not convinced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the criminal justice reform bill to the floor. “You’ve got to remember that McConnell doesn’t like the bill, and all I can say is that you ought to let a Republican president who needs a big, bipartisan victory have a bipartisan victory,” he said.

The Kentucky Republican did not move criminal justice reform legislation in 2015 or 2016 amid vocal pushback from four GOP senators. The then-Obama administration supported the bill, and senators in both parties said they had 60 votes to pass it. Supporters of the narrower prison reform–only legislation are seizing on the opposition from key Republicans and the Trump administration as they push for their bill....

Cornyn added that the decision boils down to either passing prison reform or accepting that Congress will take no action for the foreseeable future in the criminal justice space. But it’s unclear if McConnell would be willing to move a bill without Grassley’s support....

And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate, is privately raising concerns about the bill. A spokeswoman for the senator said Cotton has “concerns with provisions in the bill pertaining to lenient treatment for heroin and fentanyl traffickers.” Cotton, Sessions and GOP Sens. David Perdue (Ga.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) were a small but vocal group of Republicans senators deeply opposed to broader criminal justice legislation that included both prison reform and changes to mandatory minimum sentencing.

Cornyn acknowledged that he has spoken to Cotton about trying to address his issues with the prison reform bill. “I’ve told him we’re going to work with him and come up with something that I think he’ll be able to support,” Cornyn said, “but he did express some concerns.”

Some of many prior related posts:

May 30, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

An (encouraging?) update on the state of federal criminal justice reform in US Senate

The New York Times has this new article, headlined "Why Some Senators Who Want a Criminal Justice Overhaul Oppose a Prisons Bill," reporting on the latest state of debate over federal statutory criminal justice reforms. The report is a bit encouraging, though also a bit worrisome.  Here are highlights:

In a private huddle on Wednesday on the Senate floor, a group of senators corralled Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, and asked for time for a last-ditch negotiation to try to find an acceptable compromise.  Quite rightly, backers of changes in mandatory minimum laws fear that this may be the only chance for years to push a major criminal justice measure through Congress and that sentencing revisions — a more politically difficult lift — will languish if legislation aimed at reducing prison recidivism becomes law on its own.

“You don’t get many opportunities around here to do anything meaningful or substantive,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and a chief author of the sentencing provisions. “Let’s not waste this one. Let’s get this right.”

Mr. Durbin has a powerful ally in Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Grassley came around slowly to sentencing changes, but once he got on board, he has been committed. He warned again last week that no criminal justice measure can pass the Senate without new flexibility in mandatory minimum sentences. “It’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Grassley said in a speech.

Mr. McConnell could try to go around Mr. Grassley and advance the House measure, which passed 360 to 59.  It allocates $50 million a year over five years for job training, education and mental health and drug treatment, and provides incentives for prisoners to take part in the programs.  But Mr. Grassley has been Mr. McConnell’s dedicated partner in pushing judicial nominations through the Senate — and in blocking President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick B. Garland in 2016.  His opposition would be an embarrassing obstacle.  Not to mention that Mr. McConnell is not that keen on criminal justice legislation in general, and he would probably be reluctant to provoke a midterm election season battle over a measure for which he has little personal enthusiasm. He refused to put the broad prison and sentencing bill to a vote in the last Congress despite bipartisan support because of objections from conservatives, including Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now the attorney general.

In his meeting on the floor with senators including Mr. Durbin, Mr. Grassley and John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican and a chief sponsor of the prison bill, Mr. McConnell was noncommittal but left open the prospect of moving ahead with a bill if an agreement could be reached.  “I said, ‘Look, guys, if you all can get your act together and come up with something that you’re comfortable with, that the president will sign, I’d be willing to take a look at it,’ ” Mr. McConnell said in an interview with The New York Times. But he said he was not interested in wasting the Senate’s time.

“What I’m not willing to do, just to refresh your memory from a couple of months ago, is have a freewheeling debate like we did on immigration for a whole week,” Mr. McConnell said. “We squandered a week and nothing happened. So I’m in the business of trying to make a law, not make a point.”

Mr. Durbin and other Senate backers of the sentencing changes believe they can make some relatively modest additions to the prison legislation to achieve some but not all of their goals.  They are focused on narrowing the definition of crimes that can prompt long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and on cutting the length of some of the required sentences.  They say that such changes would have a much more consequential effect on easing the United States’ mass incarceration than solely focusing on recidivism. “We might not get everything we want, but there is some sentencing reform we can achieve with this bill,” said Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah.

But others believe that throwing sentencing provisions into the mix will kill the prison bill, particularly with the midterm elections looming.  The sentencing changes have previously proved an impossible sell to conservative Republicans who believe the reductions in mandatory minimums make them look soft on crime.  It was that previous divide that kept Mr. McConnell from moving ahead with the more comprehensive version.

Backers of the prison bill, which is titled the First Step Act, say that Congress should take what it can get immediately and continue to press ahead on the more challenging sentencing changes. “The First Step Act is not the end,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York and an author of the measure. “It’s not even the beginning of the end. It’s simply the end of the beginning on a journey undertaken to eradicate our mass incarceration epidemic in America.”

Those pursuing a more comprehensive approach say that the consideration of the prison bill alone could doom their efforts because it will allow lawmakers and the White House to claim they acted on criminal justice without getting at the real issue.  “It is one thing to say we are going to open the door an inch wider for those wanting to leave prison while ignoring the fact that they are flooding in through the front door,” Mr. Durbin said.

Senators now have what appears to be a slight opening to fashion a compromise they can try to sell to skeptical and resistant colleagues.  If they fail, proponents of the prison legislation will no doubt begin clamoring for action on their measure, setting up a showdown with the originators of the criminal justice system proposal over what constitutes true reform.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE:  This new commentary authored by Derek Cohen, headlined "Prison reform is worth fighting for in the Senate," makes the case for the FIRST STEP Act. Eugene Robinson has authored this distinct commentary making a somewhat different pitch for the bill under the headline "Prison reform bill isn't perfect, but it's a First Step."

May 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

FIRST STEP Act passes US House of Representatives by vote of 360-59(!), but its fate in Senate remains uncertain

The prospect of at least partial federal statutory criminal justice reform got that much brighter this afternoon when the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the FIRST STEP Act.  The vote was 360-59, with Republicans voting 226 to 2 in favor of the bill (not doubt in part because of Prez Trump's strong advocacy for prison reform), and Democrats voting 134 to 57 in favor of the bill. Democratic opposition was certainly based on the failure of the bill to include any sentencing reforms, and this Reason article highlights why this reality might bode ill for the bill's prospects in the Senate.  The Reason piece has this fitting headline: "Prison Reform Bill Passes The House; Is Prison Reform Dead? The House passed a major, bipartisan prison reform bill backed by the White House, but it’s being attacked from all sides."  Here are excerpts:

The House passed legislation that would introduce several significant reforms to the federal prison system today, but the bill's future is uncertain and its passage has openly divided a criminal justice coalition that has worked together, at least in public, for the past several years.

The FIRST STEP Act, which includes a number of substantive changes to the federal prison and reentry system, passed by a vote of 360-59 and now goes to the Senate, but advancing to the White House is not a sure thing. Democrats are split on it, old-school conservatives are drumming up opposition from law enforcement groups, and progressive advocacy groups are attacking it from the left. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Republican pointman on criminal justice reform, says the bill is dead in the water unless it includes major reforms to federal sentencing law as well.

Trying to keep the whole thing from falling apart are a bipartisan group of House members, the White House—where prison reform has been a priority for President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner—and criminal justice groups who say some progress is better than none.

"I think unfortunately there are groups that would like to see sentencing reform happen right now and are not willing to settle for less," says Jessica Jackson Sloan, co-founder of #Cut50, a group that works to lower the U.S. prison population. "In some ways it's strategic because they helped us to make this bill as good as it can be, but at this point it's splitting the Democrat vote and we need a strong show of support to have this taken up in the Senate."...

The bill has sharply divided Democrats. On one side is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the bill's co-sponsor, and others who say it would provide better conditions and the possibility of earlier release for the roughly 180,000 inmates serving time in federal prison. "Any objective reading of this bill is that it will improve inmates' quality of life," Jeffries said on the House floor prior to the vote.

On the other side are Democrats who say the good provisions in the bill are outweighed by core concerns over how the overcrowded, underfunded Bureau of Prisons system would handle the new programs and changes. In a "dear colleague" letter released last week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tx.) wrote that the reforms would fail without broader sentencing reforms....

Meanwhile in the Senate, Grassley and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors are pushing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which includes reductions to federal mandatory minimum sentences. The bill is the result of years of negotiation between Senate Republicans and Democrats, and the lead negotiators don't want to see their work languish.

"With the President's encouragement, I believe we can reach a deal on criminal justice reform," Grassley said in a statement Tuesday. "For that deal to pass the Senate, it must include sentencing reform. This is necessary for practical as well as political reasons."

However, sentencing reform is a non-starter for the White House, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a staunch opponent of criminal justice reforms — holds sway....

For supporters of the bill, the last few months have felt like an unending game of whack-a-mole. "One obstacle pops up and you knock it down," says Holly Harris, Executive Director at the U.S. Justice Action Network. "This has been a delicate dance from the beginning.  I think this will be the most well-vetted bill that Congress has seen in years. It's been a long time coming, and those who stand in the way of progress, those will be the losers in this situation."

Some of many prior related posts:

May 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 21, 2018

On eve of planned House vote on FIRST STEP Act, NY Times editorial misguidedly asserts a "partial bill could end up being worse than nothing"

The on-going debate over competing proposals for federal statutory criminal justice reform continues to fascinate me, but I am getting ever more troubled by suggestions from certain folks that the FIRST STEP Act is so bad and that the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act is a so much better.  This new New York Times editorial, headlined "The Right Way to Fix the Prisons," reflects this thinking, and here are excerpts with passages stressed that particularly concern me:

For more than a decade, states of every political hue — from Texas and Louisiana to Connecticut and California — have been overhauling their criminal justice systems, to reverse the effects of decades of harsh and counterproductive policies.  But Congress has watched this revolution from the sidelines, thanks to reactionary lawmakers, including Mr. Sessions when he was in the Senate.  Comprehensive federal legislation has been foiled again and again, as states forge ahead, reducing both prison populations and crime rates through bipartisan reforms....

One bill backed by the White House, known as the First Step Act, would improve some prison conditions and help smooth the path to re-entry for people behind bars. It would, for example, require that inmates be housed within 500 miles of their families, prohibit the brutal but disturbingly common practice of shackling pregnant women and expand rehabilitative programs in which prisoners can participate to earn good-time credits.  These are all important and long-overdue fixes to existing law.

But the bill would leave it up to individual prison wardens to decide who gets to use their credits and when, which means inmates would be treated differently based on where they’re locked up.  The bill also restricts early release to halfway houses, even though as many as 40 percent of people behind bars pose no risk to public safety, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, and would do fine with less intensive oversight, such as electronic monitoring.  On top of that, federal halfway houses are so underfunded that even inmates who are eligible for immediate release can’t go anywhere, because there aren’t enough beds available.

The biggest problem with the First Step Act, however, isn’t what’s in it; it’s what’s left out.  Specifically, sentencing reform.  Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, like mandatory minimums of 10 or 20 years even for low-level drug crimes, have been among the main drivers of the nation’s exploding prison population....

Mr. Grassley is sponsoring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce the harshest sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and give judges more discretion to issue lighter sentences.  The bill nearly passed Congress in 2016, only to be killed by then-Senator Jeff Sessions.... Mr. Grassley’s bill has the support of top senators of both parties, as well as law-enforcement leaders and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil-rights organizations.  It’s not perfect, but it’s far preferable to the First Step Act, which could get a vote in the House as soon as this week.

Meanwhile, liberal backers of the First Step Act, like Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, argue that it’s better than nothing, especially in the current political environment. “We have a Republican president. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Mr. Jeffries wrote in letter to his colleagues on Friday. “Those are the facts.”

He’s right.  And yet a partial bill could end up being worse than nothing, especially if its benefits don’t live up to expectations, and if Congress, which has many other pressing matters to attend to, decides it’s had enough of the topic.  “Get a bill to my desk,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “I will sign it.” If he means this, and if he genuinely cares about reforming the federal justice system, he’ll demand a bill that addresses the system’s most pressing problems.

Though this Times editorial references Rep. Hakeem Jeffries' extended letter defending the FIRST STEP Act, I wonder if the details of this important missive was fully understood.  That letter highlights that many of the prison reform provisions are MUCH improved in the FIRST STEP Act as compared to the SRCA.  Of particularly importance, the FIRST STEP Act includes the "Good Time Credit" fix, which serves functionally as a 2% across the board cut to prison terms for all current and all future federal prisoners.  There is no proper way to claim that a permanent and retroactive 2% cut in all federal prison terms "could end up being worse than nothing."  Moreover, it bears noting that the SRCA is anything but major sentencing reform, as it is only forecast to impact less than 5% of all cases annually under the US Sentencing Commission's estimates.  

In other words, the SRCA offers a worse version of prison reform cobbled together with a weak version of sentencing reform.  Even on the substantive merits, I am not sure I would prefer SRCA to the FIRST STEP Act.  (And of course, Congress has been trying to pass variant on the SRCA for now nearly half a decade to no avail.)   Most critically, the passage of the SRCA would be much more likely to bring what the NY Times fears, namely a reform bill that does not live up to expectations and yet allows Congress to feel it can move on after having done something "comprehensive."  In contrast, the FIRST STEP Act, if passed, will be in both name and spirit just what is needed here: a real improvement that is widely understood as only the first of many needed steps toward fixing a deeply flawed federal sentencing and prison system.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: This Politico article from Monday night, headlined "Trump-backed prisons bill DOA in the Senate," suggests that neither the FIRST STEP Act or the SRCA has much of a chance to make it through the Senate no matter what happens in the House.  Though the headline of this Politico piece is disconcerting, the full article is not quite so pessimistic and reinforces that Judiciary Chair Senator Chuck Grassley and Senate Leader Senator McConnell are the critical players for the future of any federal statutory criminal justice reforms for the foreseeable future. 

May 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The latest political back and forth, on both sides of the aisle, as federal prison reform efforts gain momentum

Politico has two fascinating new articles about on-going political debates and maneuvering surrounding the FIRST STEP Act.  That proposal, as reported here, received a 25-5 vote in favor in the House Judiciary Committee ten days ago, and it seems to be the top federal criminal justice reform bill with a real chance to get to the desk of Prez Trump in the coming months. Here are the full headlines and the start of each Politico article:

"Trump pushes for prison reform bill that divides Democrats: The split among Democrats over whether to support a narrow bill or push for sentencing reductions spilled into the open on Friday":

President Donald Trump on Friday embraced a bipartisan prison reform proposal, but a sharp divide among Democrats on the issue threatens to undermine the deal.  The discord was on display Friday as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York circulated a scathing letter accusing fellow Democrats of trying to tank the effort by waging an opposition campaign “riddled with factual inaccuracies.” At issue is whether to move ahead with a more narrow overhaul or to hold out for a broader criminal justice bill that includes sentencing reductions.

Trump vowed in his remarks that his administration would make circumstances "far, far, far greater than ever before" for former prisoners looking to rebuild their lives.  But other leading Democrats are fighting Jeffries' approach, pushing for the sentencing reductions, which are opposed by the Trump administration. Jeffries' rebuke came in response to a letter [posted here] criticizing the narrower prisons bill circulated on Thursday by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), among others.

"Cotton jolts prison reform negotiations":

Multiple law enforcement groups say Sen. Tom Cotton’s office approached them about opposing a bipartisan prison reform bill — a key legislative priority for President Donald Trump — according to emails reviewed by POLITICO.

Cotton’s office says it made no direct request for groups to oppose the bill. But the outreach from the Arkansas Republican, one of Trump's closest allies in Congress, has left supporters of the prison reform effort suspicious that he is trying to tank the Trump-backed legislation before it reaches the Senate.

Cotton is a stalwart critic of broader criminal justice overhaul proposals but has yet to publicly come out against the narrower, prison-focused approach that Trump is backing. However, the emails reviewed by POLITICO show at least two leading law enforcement groups discussing a call by Cotton’s office this week for letters of opposition on prison reform ahead of a White House summit Friday on the issue.

In one instance, the request from Cotton’s camp appears to have lost the prisons bill a supporter: The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which had declared its endorsement in February, wrote to House and Senate Republican leaders on Friday announcing it was reversing that position and would oppose the prison reform bill, citing changes made to the measure in recent weeks. A member of the organization said Cotton’s office had asked the group to send a letter of opposition, according to one of the emails reviewed by POLITICO. The FLEOA did not return a request for comment.

In a separate email shared with POLITICO, another top law enforcement group said it and other similar organizations had been contacted by Cotton’s office with a request to oppose the bill in writing.

Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler said the office had not directly requested any public opposition. “Senator Cotton believes it’s important that we get prison reform right, and that any legislation must fully protect law-abiding Americans. He’s consulted with Arkansans and several law enforcement groups and is actively working with his colleagues to address his concerns with the current bill,” Tabler said in a statement.

I suspect that there are not many examples of Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Kamala voting similarly on a high-profile piece of legislation, but the latest news and developments concerning federal criminal justice reform suggests they may both end up voting no (albeit for different reasons) if and when the FIRST STEP Act comes up for a vote in the Senate. Interesting times.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Five prominent congressional Democrats write in opposition to federal statutory prison reform without broader sentencing reform

As reported in this Politico piece, a set of "powerful Democrats stepped up their opposition campaign against a bipartisan bill on prison reform via a lengthy letter Thursday, their latest attempt to stamp out momentum for the proposal before it hits the House floor next week." Here is more:

The Democrats’ five-page opposition letter, which describes the bill as a “step backwards,” is just the latest volley in an ongoing battle over how far Congress should go this year to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system.  The legislation is backed by the White House and could be the last real chance for a bipartisan success — no easy feat in a contentious election year — but has several key opponents, particularly in the Senate.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the revered civil rights leader and one of the most influential members of the House Democratic Caucus, signed on to the letter.  Other Democrats already known to be opposed to the prison bill also added their names: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

“We write to express our serious concerns with the First Step Act, legislation that purports to reform federal prisons but which would in fact be a step backwards,” they wrote. They go on to say that the bill, which would provide training programs for prisoners that are aimed at reducing repeat offenses, could actually have the opposite effect by putting in place policies that are more discriminatory toward inmates of color.

The letter — particularly Lewis’ opposition — could be a significant blow to efforts by the bill’s supporters to round up support ahead of an expected floor vote next week.  Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), lead authors of the push for prison reform, have been meeting with members since the bill sailed out of committee last week....

The letter takes several shots at the prison reform proposal, saying that it doesn’t provide enough funding to be effective and that Sessions, a vocal opponent of criminal justice reform, would have far too much autonomy over the new programs.

The bill has strong Republican support in the House — all but one Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, including several far-right members, backed the proposal. But the legislation has divided Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Lewis’ opposition to the bill could be particularly influential for Democrats deciding how to vote.  But the bill’s authors can also point to several prominent backers on their side, including CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading progressive.

The full five-page "Dear Colleague" letter is available at this link, and it reiterates a series of arguments that the progressive opponents of prison reform have been making for months. As I have said before, though I see merit in many of the criticisms of prison-only reform efforts, I struggle to see any path forward for more robust reforms in the immediate future.  (There is also the irony that the prison-reform provisions they criticize in the FIRST STEP Act also appear in the broader sentencing reform bill they promote as an alternative.) 

As I noted in this recent post, broader reforms have now been robustly discussed for the better part of a decade and they did not become law even when there was a supportive Prez and Attorney General.  Perhaps the authors of this letter have a viable plan for getting a better bill to the desk of the Prez and signed into law, but I know I am more than tired of waiting to see any kind of serious criminal justice reform passed by Congress.  (Keep in mind it has been a full eight years since the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the last notable statutory sentencing or prison reform, and that law only addressed one crime that makes up now less than 5% of the federal caseload.)

The strategy of hoping for more favorable political conditions for broader sentencing reform strikes me as an especially risky strategy given AG Jeff Sessions' obvious disaffinity for any reforms and his ability and eagerness to use any crime data and developments to make the case against reform.  If crime data in the coming months show a continued rise in crime, AG Sessions is sure to argue that cutting sentences at a time of rising crime is misguided; if data instead show a new decline, AG Sessions is sure to assert that his policy changes have been efficacious and that current law preserves the status quo. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A fittingly depressing account of the current state and potential fate of federal statutory criminal justice reform

This NPR piece from earlier this week, headlined "White House Adviser Jared Kushner Pushes Prison Reform Bill Forward," reviews the state of federal proposals in Congress with a few fitting flourishes about the continuing slog to get any form of criminal justice reform passes. These emphasized passages in particular prompted this post:

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST: There is some movement on the bipartisan effort to overhaul the nation's federal prisons.  The House Judiciary Committee recently advanced a bill to improve prison conditions, and the White House is also getting involved. Here to talk more about the effort is NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.  Hey there.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So you've been covering plans it seems like for years, plans to change, upgrade, update the U.S. prison system. Get us up to speed.  Where do those plans stand?

JOHNSON: Well, last week the House Judiciary Committee voted 25 to 5 to approve legislation called the FIRST STEP Act.  That bill would make life a little bit easier for pregnant inmates. And it would offer programs prisoners could take to earn good time credits, credits for possible early release.... I'm hearing the bill could get a vote from the full U.S. House of Representatives next week before the Memorial Day holiday.

KELLY: All right, so that sounds promising.  But I gather there is a catch 'cause you're talking about the House and the Senate may be in a really different place.

JOHNSON: Mary Louise, there's a big catch.  For some justice advocates this legislation in the House is actually a step backwards, not forwards ... [as] this is not the same plan we've been talking about for six or seven years since the Obama White House. That bigger plan would touch tens of thousands of prisoners and change some of those tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, actually reducing the number of people who go behind bars in the first place.  What the House is doing now is a much smaller bite of the apple.  And people in the Senate, including the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, Chuck Grassley, are now holding out for a lot more....

JOHNSON: Yeah. So [Jared] Kushner since he got to the White House has been holding roundtable discussions about this.  One of the people he's trying to partner with is the Texas senator John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership.  Cornyn has introduced a more modest version of prison reform as of last week.  It's a kind of a companion to the House plan we've been talking about.  And together Kushner and Cornyn are going to try to push the Senate to take up this legislation even though the leader of the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, thinks that's a bad idea in an election year.  Now, experts who've been following these issues for a long time thinks it's - think it's going to be a tough slog, lots of talking, lots of energy. But in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done.

KELLY: Wow. It sounds like you may have many more years to come of following person reform.

To review, then: there have been reform plans in Congress for years, and the leading "bigger plan" is one "we've been talking about for six or seven years" (but have not really even gotten close to passing).  But now that a seemingly viable smaller reform plan in the form of the FIRST STEP ACT (which, in fact, will "touch tens of thousands of prisoners") looks like it might make it through the House of Representatives this week, it appears Senate leaders are going to blocks its progress for various reasons.  Consequently, smart folks are predicting "lots of talking, lots of energy" to no effect, because "in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done."  But at least Carrie Johnson (who is a terrific reporter) will likely have "many more years" to cover this particular story of congressional dysfunction. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 16, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Puzzling through the current politics of pursuing federal statutory criminal justice reforms

Rolling Stone has this notable new report on the latest politics surround federal criminal justice reform efforts under the headline "'We Don't Have to Worry About Senator Sessions': A look inside the Congressional battle for criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts:

Less than one month ago, there was no hope for any meaningful criminal justice reform to make its way out of this Republican-controlled Congress. But last week a large, bipartisan block of members of the House Judiciary Committee passed a narrow prison reform bill aimed at stemming the recidivism rate. That tees it up for a floor vote, even as many political watchers have predicted most major legislative efforts will be put on hold until after voters go to their polling booths in November.

"This is just a money and morals issue for me," Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who is one of the bill's lead authors, tells Rolling Stone.  "It's about money that we're saving by not only redirecting that in our prison system, but also the moral aspect that everybody deserves a second chance."

Collins was able to revive the effort by massaging the bill with his ally Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who represents Brooklyn and Queens and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.  The legislation sailed through their House committee by a lopsided 25-5 vote, but it faces stiff opposition in the Senate from those who want it to go much further in overhauling the nation's system of mandatory minimum prison sentences that critics say constrain the nation's judges and have left prisons brimming with nonviolent drug offenders.

"I'm disappointed, but it doesn't change anything that we have to do over here," Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tells Rolling Stone. "[Senate Minority Whip Dick] Durbin and I are working together to make sure that if there's going to be anything done on criminal justice reform, it's going to contain sentencing reform."...

Collins says they were able to revive the bill in the House because they narrowed its scope to win over Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "We're not dealing with sentencing reform at this point, and he understood that," Collins said.

In response to reports that Sessions supported the measure, a DOJ official tells Rolling Stone that Sessions did not, in fact, sign off on the House bill, and that he opposes it.  The official refused to elaborate on reasons why.

But Grassley maintains the attorney general is irrelevant on the issue – even though he's the top law enforcement official in the nation. "We don't have to worry about Senator Sessions," Grassley tells Rolling Stone. "Why's that?"

"We don't have to worry about Senator Sessions," he repeated. "You don't have to know why. We just don't have to worry about him."  Grassley's staff refused to answer questions as to whether the senator has been assured that Trump would sign a mandatory minimum bill over Sessions' protest, or, on a more sinister note, whether Grassley believes Sessions will remain in his current position as attorney general.

Independent of Sessions, however, it's unclear whether there's enough support in Congress to pass criminal justice reform that leaves mandatory minimums untouched. Supporters of the House bill argue that doing anything to help current prisoners escape the incarceration cycle is better than not sitting idly by.

"[Sessions] is an impediment, and I'd suspect Trump's people are basically against sentencing reform," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) tells Rolling Stone. "To get sentencing reform is probably going to necessitate a Democratic Congress, so that'll come next year. There's no reason to have people sit in a jail for another year when they don't need to be."

To review: it seems we do not know if AG Sessions is formally for or against the prison reform bill, the FIRST STEP Act, that passed the House Judiciary Committee last week, and we do not know if Senate Judiciary Committee leaders (or other Senators) may be willing to move forward with this FIRST STEP Act. I continue to fear AG Sessions' general opposition to any meaningful reforms and Senate leaders' eagerness for sentencing reforms may mean nothing gets done to bring any relief to any federal defendant anytime soon.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Mapping out the politics for the path forward for federal prison (and sentencing?) reform

I am unsure how big a deal to make out of the passage of the FIRST STEP Act out of the House Judiciary Committee today (discussed here) because I am not sure it create much more confidence about the chance of the Senate moving forward with a form of federal criminal justice reform that can actually become law.  This new Politico article discusses the political uncertainty that is now the reality:

Congress on Wednesday edged closer to a rare bipartisan achievement during a hotly contested election year after a House panel voted overwhelmingly to send a prison reform plan to the floor — despite persistent internal GOP tensions in the Senate over the White House-backed bill.

The prison legislation, a key priority of Jared Kushner, won easy approval in the House Judiciary Committee.  It was a striking turnabout after backers scrapped a vote on an earlier version two weeks ago amid waning support.  But the bill’s lopsided 25-5 vote masked ongoing disputes among Senate Republicans and House Democrats over its omission of sentencing reforms opposed by President Donald Trump. Critics of the measure say those sentencing reforms are crucial to any deal.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has allied with Democratic supporters of a broader criminal justice package that includes both sentencing and prison reform provisions. GOP leaders in both chambers want to instead move the narrower prison bill, which would authorize training for prisoners that’s aimed at reducing recidivism rates.

As the House panel moved to okay the bill, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) — a previous backer of the broader criminal justice overhaul who has narrowed his sights to prison reform — said he hoped to negotiate with Grassley on a path forward....

Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, his lead Democratic partner on the Senate criminal justice package, said Wednesday that they were “encouraged” by the House’s progress but giving no ground on their position. “For any criminal justice reform proposal to win approval in the Senate, it must include these sentencing reforms,” Grassley and Durbin said in a statement.

Lobbying on the House prison bill also has become contentious in recent weeks, pitting one of the legislation’s lead cosponsors, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), against the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, fellow New York Rep. Jerry Nadler. Jeffries has worked for months with Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) on the bill, omitting the sentencing provisions that are a nonstarter with the White House in part because of longstanding opposition from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Nadler took part in a Tuesday meeting with opponents of the legislation and made an impassioned plea to delay consideration of the bill during the markup. Jeffries, however, downplayed the tension after the bill sailed through the judiciary panel. He said everyone involved in the bill supports addressing sentencing laws; the disagreement is over when that should happen. “Mass incarceration has been with us for almost 40 years. It’s going to take more than one singular legislative magic wand to eradicate it,” Jeffries said in an interview.

“We all agree that sentencing reform should be a part of any broad criminal justice reform effort that takes place. The First Step Act represents the beginning of the end of overcriminalization in America.”

A House floor vote on the bill is possible before the Memorial Day recess, according to multiple sources. But the proposal still faces formidable foes, from powerful civil rights groups like the ACLU and key senators such as Grassley and Durbin. Dozens of advocacy groups, including the NAACP, sent another letter opposing the prison bill to House members on Tuesday.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another supporter of the broader criminal justice package, reiterated in a Tuesday interview that “I want to see sentencing reform and prison reform move together, and I worry that this bill doesn’t” make that happen. Booker met Monday night to discuss strategy on the bill with Durbin, Jeffries, Nadler, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). But supporters of the broader and narrower approaches to criminal justice left entrenched in their positions, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.... The bill, if successful, would likely be the last major bipartisan effort to clear Congress before the election. And it would be a major victory for Kushner, who has failed to score any significant wins in the White House, despite a disparate policy portfolio that has included everything from bringing peace to the Middle East to tackling the nation’s opioid crisis.

“The key for this is a realization that perfect doesn’t exist on the Hill,” Collins said in an interview. “Although we want to have done some more, this is a very valid first step.” The White House "look[s] forward to a vote in the full House" on the legislation, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said by email.

The bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years for educational and vocational programs for prisoners with the goal of equipping inmates for life after incarceration and reducing repeat offenses.

In a major win for progressives, the bill also includes a technical tweak to current law that would increase “good time” credit for prisoners from 47 days to 54 days per year. The change, which would be applied retroactively, would lead to the immediate release of 4,000 prisoners, according to the bill’s supporters.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

House Judiciary Committee approves FIRST STEP Act by a vote of 25-5 after lots of discussion of amendments

As reported in this article from The Hill, the House Judicial Committee "on Wednesday approved a new prison reform bill being pushed by the White House."  Here are some details:

The bill, called the First Step Act, seeks to offer more funding for prison programs in an attempt to reduce an inmate’s likelihood to re-offend after they’ve been released. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill, by a 25-5 vote, that Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) spent the last week negotiating after committee Democrats pushed back against a number of conservative provisions.

In the legislation now advancing to the House, lawmakers removed language that would have allowed certain law enforcement officials and correctional officers to carry a concealed firearm in all 50 states and created more opportunities for prisoners to earn time credits by completing prison programs. They can then use those credits to serve the remaining days of their sentence in a halfway house or home confinement.

The bill, which authorizes $50 million a year for five years for the Bureau of Prisons to spend on programs like job training and education that reduce recidivism, clarifies current law to allow prisoners up to 54 days of credit for good behavior annually. The law was previously interpreted as only allowing prisoners to earn 47 days a year.

The previous bill, known as the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, and the current compromise, however, have divided Democrats and liberal groups. While #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group led by Van Jones, the CNN host and former adviser to President Obama, is now backing the new bill, the measure is still opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 73 other groups.

Democrats and progressive groups argue the criminal justice reform bill should include provisions that reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee’s ranking member, said the bill is well-intentioned but the committee should be working on legislation that includes sentencing reform. He offered a motion to postpone the markup by one month to give committee members time to negotiate and markup sentencing reform legislation.... Nadler’s motion was [after discussion] voted down by the committee.

Progressives were able to win language prohibiting female prisoners from being shackled during pregnancy, childbirth and up to 12 weeks after a baby is born. But the committee voted down an amendment Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) offered to create a pilot program in federal prisons to allow female inmates who give birth while behind bars to live with their child in a prison housing unit until the child is two-and-a-half years old.

The committee, however, approved an amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to expand a pilot youth mentorship program and a pilot program that gives prisoners the skills to train rescue and abandoned dogs. The bill would take the programs from two years in 10 facilities to five years in at least 20 facilities.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) also had an amendment approved that would prevent faith-based organizations that want to offer prison programming from being discriminated against.

A bipartisan amendment from Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Collins, Jackson Lee, Jeffries and Val Demings (D-Fla.) was also approved to clarify that the legislative fix, which makes prisoners eligible for 54 days of good time instead of 47, applies to prisoners already serving sentences....

Collins said he’s confident there’s enough Democratic support to get the bill through the House and the Senate. “They have their own process to go through. There may be some issues that we can then work on later, but I do feel this is one of the pieces of legislation that will be signed into law this year,” he said.

The House Judiciary Committee has this press release about the vote and key provisions of the bill under the heading, "House Judiciary Committee Approves Bill to Reform the Federal Prison System."  Though not mentioned in these reports, I believe all the Republican votes coming from the committee were in favor of this FIRST STEP bill except for Rep. Steve King from Iowa, and also that a majority of the Democrats in the committee also voted for the bill (though Ranking Member Jerry Nadler and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee were among the notable "No"s).

All of this suggests to me a reason to be optimistic that there might really be some notable federal criminal justice reform getting done in 2018.  It is less than I would like to see, but I still think it would be MUCH better than nothing. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

On eve of House Committee consideration, distinct advice from criminal justice reform groups on latest federal prison reform proposal

As noted in this prior recent post, a new and improved version of a federal prison reform bill, the "Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act" or the "FIRST STEP Act, " is now slated for House Judiciary Committee markup the morning of Wednesday, May 9th.  The full text of this FIRST STEP bill is available at this link, and I am starting to wonder if this may be a significant criminal justice reform bill that ends up getting in committee even more votes from Republicans than from Democrats.  (For those keeping score, and as this official list details, there are 40 members of the House Judiciary Committee of which 23 are Republicans and 17 are Democrats.)

I do not know for sure if all 23 Republican members of the HJC will be voting for the FIRST STEP bill, but I surmise that some Democrats will be voting against it because the bill is too limited and lacks any sentencing reform elements.  Indeed, on Tuesday, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights along with 74 reform-oriented organizations sent this lengthy letter to House Judiciary Committee members titled "Vote 'No' on The FIRST STEP Act."  Here is how the letter gets started: 

On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the 74 undersigned organizations, we urge you to vote “No” on the FIRST STEP Act that will be considered during the mark up.  Any effort to pass prison reform (or “back-end” reform) legislation without including sentencing reform (or “front-end” reform) will not meaningfully improve the federal system.  Across the country, states that have enacted legislation containing both front and back end reforms have reduced rates of incarceration and crime.  Any legislation that addresses only back end reforms is doomed to fail in achieving these goals.  Without changes to sentencing laws that eliminate mandatory minimums, restore judicial discretion, reduce the national prison population, and mitigate disparate impacts on communities of color, the FIRST STEP Act alone will have little impact.

Critically, though, not all leading criminal justice reform groups are urging a no vote on the FIRST STEP Act.  The President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums sent a short memo to the sponsors of the FIRST STEP Act, Representatives Doug Collins and Hakeem Jeffries, explaining why FAMM believe the bill "deserves the Judiciary Committee’s support."  That memo, which can be downloaded below, echoes many concerns of other advocacy groups, but explains why it is ultimately backing this bill in these terms: "FAMM is in contact with nearly 40,000 federal prisoners every week.  Far too many of them are serving excessive sentences.  This bill might be the only opportunity we have in the next few years to get them some overdue relief and justice."    Download FAMM Memo on First Step

Regular readers likely realize I am in the FAMM camp here, wishing that a more comprehensive bill was being considered, but resigned to the political reality that a prison reform bill looks like the only form of statutory criminal justice reform that has a serious chance of being enacted this year.  In this arena, something is always better than nothing, and Congress has delivered nothing on sentencing or prison reform for now nearly eight years despite so much talk from so many folks about a strong bipartisan interest in reform.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 07, 2018

New and improved version of federal prison reform bill to be considered by House Judiciary Committee

First-step-concept-cork-board-77226634In this post last night, I expressed my deep pessimism concerning Congress managing to pass any notable criminal justice reform.  So it is fitting kismet that this afternoon came the exciting news of a new and improved version of a prison reform bill known as the "Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act" or the "FIRST STEP Act." The full text of this bill is available at this link, and this House Judiciary Committee page indicates that this bill will be marked up this Wednesday.

This new Politico article, headlined "Kushner-backed prison reform bill finds new life," provides an account of the background politics and the critical new provisions of the new proposed legislation. Here are excerpts:

A group of bipartisan House lawmakers unveiled a new criminal justice bill Monday, with hopes it can overcome obstacles that derailed an earlier version of the legislation just two weeks ago. The House Judiciary Committee will vote on the prison reform bill Wednesday after its lead authors, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), spent the congressional recess working with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and others to tweak the proposal.

The bill would authorize funding for training programs to help rehabilitate prisoners. If approved by the Judiciary Committee, the bill could be on the House floor before the Memorial Day recess, according to several sources. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a companion proposal Monday afternoon.

But while Jeffries and Collins have been working to build a bipartisan coalition of support, key lawmakers including Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), top Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, and Senate Judiciary Charmain Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) remain potential obstacles.

The House Judiciary Committee scrapped plans two weeks ago to mark up an earlier version of the bill after support waned — due in part, according to House sources, from Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) privately urging members to oppose the plan because it didn't include sentencing reforms. “What we’re disagreeing on right now is how far can we go right now,” Collins said in an interview Monday. “Do you want to actually make law or do you want to make press releases?”...

Collins and Jeffries said they hope the plan’s broad support — from liberal criminal justice group #cut50 to the Koch brothers to Kushner — is enough to ensure passage in the House. Kushner is meeting with the conservative House Freedom Caucus Monday evening to rally support for the bill.

But Nadler — who still has “a lot of concerns” a spokesman said Monday — isn’t alone in his opposition to the bill. Detractors argue the proposal doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t also tackle sentencing reform, an effort Grassley and Durbin have spent months negotiating. Grassley along with several key Senate Democrats and influential civil rights groups like the ACLU and NAACP want a comprehensive criminal justice overhaul that includes both sentencing and prison reforms....

Jeffries and Collins told POLITICO they hope the changes made over the last two weeks are enough to get reluctant House lawmakers on board. Jeffries is also hopeful that Sessions will refrain from trying to sink the effort as he has in the past. “At the moment, it appears that the Department of Justice is in a position of neutrality as it relates to the bill,” Jeffries said. “To the extent that changes, that could be a complicating factor once the bill gets on the House floor.”

The bill — which they are now calling the “First Step Act,” in part to signify it’s the initial step in a longer effort to reform the justice system, including sentencing laws — has several major changes from previous versions.

The bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years to provide education and vocational training programs to prisoners; the latest version would also allow nonviolent drug offenders to participate in the programs. Jeffries and Collins also agreed to language that would allow more prisoners to take advantage of credits that would allow inmates to serve part of their sentence in home confinement or at a halfway house.

The proposal also includes several wins that liberal groups had pushed for, including language codifying prohibitions on shackling pregnant female inmates, both during their pregnancy and for 12 weeks postpartum.

And in what progressive backers are touting as another major win, the bill includes a technical fix that would allow inmates to earn up to 54 days of “good time” credit a year, up from 47 days annually under current interpretation of the law.

“We also had concerns around whether or not this was a meaningful reform. Those have been answered by including the good time credit fix,” #cut50 co-founder Jessica Jackson Sloan said, noting roughly 4,000 prisoners would immediately be eligible for release. “We’re fully on board with this bill. We’ll continue to fight for sentencing reform,” she added.

To turn up pressure on House Judiciary Democrats, the Koch brother’s Freedom Partners launched a wave of digital ads Monday encouraging lawmakers to support the bill. The Facebook and Twitter ads will run in six Judiciary Democrats’ districts, including Jeffries, Nadler and Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). The White House is also expected to increase its outreach on the Hill this week, likely through Kushner, according to sources.

For the plans’ supporters, they say now is the best time to act with the goal of getting sentencing reform down the road. “There were some who took the position that we should wait on criminal justice reform until [Hillary] Clinton is president and Democrats were in control of the Senate. How did that work out?” Jeffries said.

I will not count any congressional chickens until they have hatched in the form of a Presidential signature on enacted legislation. But, after feeling distinctly pessimistic last night, now I am peculiarly optimistic that something pretty significant could get done in the coming months.

May 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

More criticism of prison-reform only efforts, while failing to explain a path forward for broader federal sentencing reforms

Todd Cox, policy director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has this notable new commentary in The Hill headlined "Sentencing reform is moving in the wrong direction." Here are excerpts with a bit of additional commentary to follow:

In 2015, Senator Chuck Grassley introduced a long awaited bi-partisan criminal justice reform bill designed to address inequities in federal sentencing and promote rehabilitation and re-entry for persons who are incarcerated.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) was a compromise that fell far short of the comprehensive criminal justice reforms that are needed to truly transform the nation’s criminal justice system; and yet, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and many of our civil rights coalition partners, generally supported this compromise. Limited sentencing reforms were easier to accept in 2015, under a Department of Justice itself dedicated to policing reform and to reforming its own charging policies with the goal of reducing the impact of overly harsh sentences.

However, the Department of Justice is now led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Session’s DOJ has not only abandoned policing reform but is ramping up the now discredited “war on drugs,” re-opening the flood gates to our nation’s federal prisons.  Under these circumstances, it would be a critical mistake to pursue strategies that do not include reforming the front-end of the system or sentencing.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have decided to do just that: pursue a criminal justice reform strategy that does not include sentencing reform but focuses instead on so-called prison reform, the back-end of the system.  These proposals will not meaningfully reform the federal criminal justice system.  Indeed, states have pursued the opposite strategy, adopting both front-end and back-end reforms that have reduced both incarceration rates and crime.

Proposals without, at least, front and back-end reform will not achieve these results.  Without sentencing reform that eliminates mandatory minimums, reduces the prison population, and addresses the disparate impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color, these proposals will have little impact....

House proposals would exclude too many people currently in prison from early release even though the vast majority of these individuals would still be coming home one day. These exclusions would likely have a disparate impact on racial minorities because the proposals exclude individuals convicted of certain immigration and drug-related offenses. These types of offenses account for 53.3 percent of the total federal prison population and are made up of mostly minorities, so the bill is likely to neglect a significant portion of the prison population and exacerbate racial disparities....

We need comprehensive, meaningful criminal justice reform to create a fair equitable justice system.  We cannot accept proposals that not only take us backwards, but may actually harm the communities we serve.

I share the author's interest in "comprehensive, meaningful criminal justice reform," especially any form of federal legislation that "eliminates mandatory minimums, reduces the prison population, and addresses the disparate impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color."  But, as the commentary highlights, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act itself falls short of comprehensive reform (and it includes the prison reform features that this commentary now derides as potentially harmful).  Moreover, despite broad bipartisan support, the SRCA is still yet to get a floor vote in either chamber of Congress after three years of considerable effort.  Because sentencing reform in the form of the SRCA (or anything better) seems unlikely to move until there is a new President and/or Attorney General, criticizing efforts to move forward with just prison reform strikes me as tantamount to resigning oneself to the federal sentencing and corrections status quo until at least 2021.

I continue to hope I am wrong when fearing that there is no path forward for significant federal statutory sentencing reform until at least 2021 (if not later).  But it is discouraging to read commentaries that call for big reforms and then fail to explain how politically such reforms get done anytime soon.  Meanwhile, even a faulty version of prison reform could and should provide at least some extra bit of help and hope to tens of thousands federal prisoners (and their families and friends awaiting their release).  And focused advocacy efforts might help ensure passage of an improved version of prison reform to enhance the help and hope prisoners would get from even an imperfect and incomplete form of reform.  But as another month passes without any viable bill even getting through a committee, it seems help and hope for federal prisons is still wishful thinking.

I have become deeply pessimistic about federal statutory sentencing reform in recent years, and Congress finds new ways each session to make my pessimism look like a perverse form of wisdom.  So I suppose I will continue to predict that nothing is going to get done here anytime soon.

A few of many prior related posts:

May 6, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 27, 2018

Senator Chuck Grassley makes full-throated case for Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Sen_Chuck_Grassley_KCRGSenate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley is continuing to pitch his desired approach to statutory criminal justice reform in the form of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that passed out of his committee earlier this year. Today his pitching efforts include this lengthy new Fox News commentary under the headline "Sentencing reform bill will fight crime." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

In the 1980s, with our nation facing an influx of drug crimes, Congress passed into law stiff penalties targeting all levels of offenders. The goal was to deter crime through harsh sentences. While well-intentioned, these policies came with a cost. Over time, prisons began to fill up with offenders of all stripes. Lower-level, nonviolent drug offenders were locked up alongside career criminal masterminds. Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences offered little flexibility for judges to take individual circumstances into account and left scant prospects for rehabilitation.

Taxpayers shell out more than $7 billion annually – roughly 25 percent of the entire Justice Department budget – just to house the ballooning federal prison population, almost half of which is serving time for drug crimes.

These policies have been in place for more than three decades now, and yet we are facing a new wave of drug crimes – this time with crowded prisons syphoning scarce resources away from other law enforcement priorities. It’s clear that the policies of the 1980s need a fresh look. We need a more strategic approach to drug sentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of non-violent, lower level offenders. That is why I worked with several of my colleagues in the Senate to craft the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

This legislation is the product of years of thoughtful bipartisan deliberations and has earned the support of lawmakers, advocates and experts from across the political spectrum. The bill is tough on crime and focuses law enforcement efforts on the worst criminals. But it also promotes fairness in sentencing, especially for lower-level, nonviolent offenders. Similar reforms at the state level have reduced crime, closed prisons and cut taxpayer costs.

This bill strengthens important crime-fighting tools and aids in the fight against the opioid epidemic. It preserves cooperation incentives to help law enforcement take down serious criminals, and stiffens penalties for violent felons. The legislation adds new mandatory sentences for federal domestic violence crimes and weapons trafficking to terrorists. And it supports the fight against the opioid epidemic through enhanced penalties for traffickers of the deadly drug fentanyl.... Mandatory minimum penalties would be preserved to ensure that criminals face clear consequences for their actions. But penalties would be lowered under the bill for lower-level, nonviolent offenders to give judges additional discretion at sentencing.

Judges would still be free to impose stiff criminal penalties, but they could also take into account individual circumstances to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. This approach would prevent prisons from being overcrowded with lower-level, nonviolent criminals serving unnecessarily long sentences. In the interest of fairness, the bill would make these reforms available to some inmates who have already been sentenced under harsh mandatory minimum laws. Under the bill, an inmate with a minimal criminal history could request that a judge review his or her case to determine if the sentence should be reduced. Notably, violent and career criminals would not qualify for this relief....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This frees up resources to pay for the prison reform programs that the Trump administration supports. These programs are designed to reduce recidivism and help prisoners return to the workforce. Savings from our bill could also be used to support law enforcement efforts to fight the opioid epidemic and go after major drug importers and distributers. Without sentencing reform, Congress would have to appropriate additional funds for these programs, potentially adding to our growing budget deficit, projected to be more than $1 trillion by 2020.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has united policymakers across the political spectrum. It is co-sponsored by more than a quarter of the Senate, evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats. The bill is also backed by a diverse array of groups including FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration – a group of more than 200 respected law enforcement officials from around the country. No other proposal enjoys the same level of bipartisan support.

The notion that Congress can enact meaningful criminal justice reform by focusing solely on the back-end of the process without addressing the underlying disparities in prison sentencing is naïve and unproductive. There will never be enough funding for back-end prison reform programs as long as there is a steady stream of new inmates with lengthy sentences disproportionate to their crimes. Instead of keeping lower-level, nonviolent inmates in prisons longer for no good reason, we must work to ensure that our limited resources are used to go after our worst criminals and to prevent inmates from committing new crimes when they leave prison....

The bill proves that Congress can be tough on crime while enacting reasonable and responsible public policy. And, importantly, in an increasingly polarized political environment, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is the only proposal that has the votes necessary to become law. I look forward to continuing to work with the Trump administration and my colleagues in the Senate and House on the important issue of criminal justice reform.

I am so very pleased to see Senator Grassley continuing to work hard to secure passage of the SRCA. As I have reported in the past, various Senators have indicated that that are perhaps as many as 70 to 80 votes in support of this bill in the Senate. If Senator Grassley can convince Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell to allow a floor vote on the SRCA, it would seem nearly certain to pass. Perhaps we should try to start a campaign like #LetThemVoteonSRCA.

A few of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just noticed that Fox News also has this competing commentary from Ron Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI, headlined "Cutting federal prison terms would endanger communities and reward criminals." Here is an excerpt:

The Grassley legislation would make our communities less safe by returning still more convicted criminals from federal prisons to the streets sooner. In addition, the Grassley bill would tie up hundreds of federal prosecutors, who would be forced to deal with sentencing reduction motions filed by prisoners seeking early release. This means the prosecutors would have less time to handle new cases involving dangerous criminals.

The Grassley bill would reduce federal prison sentences not only for “non-violent, low-level drug offenders” but serious drug traffickers, members of violent drug cartels and people convicted of firearms crimes.

In addition, Grassley’s bill ignores the reality that strong federal sentencing guidelines have another valuable byproduct – squeezing cooperation from reticent criminals so they will testify against other criminals, while incentivizing them to plead guilty to lesser offenses to get shorter prison terms....

While much has been made of the harshness of federal minimum mandatory sentences and their impact on reform and on families, Bureau of Prisons records show that half of federal prisoners are serving sentences of 10 years or less. Only about 16 percent are serving sentences of 20 years or more....

Grassley’s legislation is both poorly timed and ill-advised. It’s little more than a rehashed “jailbreak” bill that should be permanently scrapped, taking with it the mistaken notion that federal prisons remain filled with “low level, non-violent” drug offenders. The good senator from Iowa would do better for all Americans by drafting legislation that empowers validated methodologies shown to steer the willing away from prison while building the opportunity, skill sets and individual tools needed to make released convicts more “crime resistant.”

April 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Federal criminal justice reform bogs down again in fight over whether prison reform or broader sentencing reform moves forward

Politico has this lengthy and discouraging article about the state of federal criminal justice reform under the headline "Kushner-backed prison reform bill stumbles in House."  Here are excerpts:

The House Judiciary Committee scrapped plans to vote on a prison reform proposal Wednesday, potentially dooming one of the few remaining prospects for significant bipartisan compromise this Congress.

The last-minute postponement of the measure came as President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner visited Capitol Hill to rally support for it.  But the delay also followed what multiple House sources described as a behind-the-scenes opposition campaign from two Senate heavyweights, one from each party.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have told House Judiciary panel members to oppose a narrower prison reform bill without the addition of a sentencing overhaul they spent months negotiating, House sources said.

The Trump administration and GOP leaders want to see a prison-only bill move, not the broader criminal justice bill, but that’s not stopping Grassley and Durbin from what one Republican portrayed as meddling in the House debate.  “Frankly, I respect the two senators, but they have enough problems in the Senate,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the House GOP’s lead author of the prison reform legislation, in a Wednesday interview. “I wish they would actually focus on passing bills over there. That would be nice.”

Durbin denied that he was telling the House to slow down on the prison-only approach: “We’re just saying that over here, the two need to be together.” But Durbin confirmed Wednesday that he has talked to the House Judiciary panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, about the importance of keeping the two bills together while Grassley has reached out to Republicans to pitch a comprehensive approach....

The Senate’s lobbying threatens to kill momentum for the Kushner-backed House bill, which would provide training programs to prisoners in hopes of discouraging repeat offenses.  The omission of sentencing changes is opposed not only by Grassley and Durbin but by dozens of powerful progressive groups including the ACLU and the NAACP. Those groups say the bill doesn’t go far enough and should also include language that would reduce sentences for some prisoners.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) blamed Wednesday’s delayed vote on “time constraints” and said the postponement will give negotiators more time to work out “minor issues.” The panel is now scheduled to consider the bill during the week of May 7.

But the impasse doesn’t show any signs of being resolved soon. In his statement at the beginning of the hearing Wednesday, Nadler said negotiators should consider including sentencing reform in their discussions.  “In my view, considering prison reform without consideration of sentencing reform has the process backward, and avoids the difficult but necessary legislating on that critical issue,” Nadler said.

Nadler later told POLITICO he would be "very reluctant” to support any bill that didn’t include sentencing reform but wouldn’t say whether his opposition, as the top Democrat on the panel, was enough to sink the proposal: “Never say never, but I’d be very reluctant."

But supporters of the narrower prison reform push say a comprehensive strategy is a futile effort and would nix the chances of any bipartisan bill getting to the president’s desk this year.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch critic of sentencing reform, opposed a similar proposal before Trump tapped him to lead DOJ and has publicly clashed with Grassley over the issue this year.

However, there’s lingering distrust among House Democrats that Sessions is operating in good faith. Democrats successfully nixed multiple “poison pill“ amendments they said were floated by DOJ during talks on the bill but said privately they’re concerned that Sessions does’'t actually want to see any criminal justice legislation come to fruition.

Grassley also acknowledged in an interview with POLITICO this week that he has yet to persuade Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the comprehensive criminal justice bill to the floor.  “It’s my job to show McConnell that this bill has got plenty of support at the grass roots, that it’s got good bipartisan support,” Grassley said. “It’s something that a president needs a bipartisan bill to sign and there’s all kinds of reasons why this bipartisan bill should be brought up, whether the House passes a bill or not.”...

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who supported Grassley’s efforts on a broader criminal justice package during the Obama administration but has narrowed his sights given the Trump administration’s opposition, delivered a floor speech Wednesday urging the two camps to come together on a prison-only approach. “I know other people have other ideas, perhaps about sentencing reform and the like,” Cornyn said, “but in this political environment, I’m for doing what we can do rather than spinning our wheels being frustrated about what we can’t do because there’s simply not the political support in the House and the Senate and at the White House to get it done.”

I am glad that Senators Grassley and Durbin remain deeply committed to getting a bigger criminal justice reform bill passed, but I continue to fear that Senate Majority Leader McConnell will continue to be unwilling to allow a floor vote on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  Senator McConnell has shown in other settings his ability to be stubborn, and his enduring resistance to the SRCA leads me to be pessimistic about any sentencing reforms getting through Congress this year.

I surmise Senators Grassley and Durbin, and perhaps many reform advocates who have come out against a prison-reform-only bill, believe that passage of a broad bill through the House might make it more likely that Senator McConnell will allow a floor vote.  Perhaps so, and I hope they can get it done.  But I am not optimistic, and I continue to think that getting prison reform done ASAP can be a needed and useful first step toward an array of badly-needed statutory reform of our federal criminal justice system.

A few of many prior related posts:

April 26, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Law enforcement reform group urges Congress to tackle sentencing reform along with prison reforms

As reported in this press release, "over 60 police chiefs and prosecutors — all members of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration — sent a letter to the Senate and House leadership calling on Congress to pass sentencing reform, as a part of the White House’s commitment to reduce recidivism." Here is more from the release:

The letter comes in advance of an expected House Judiciary Committee vote this week on a prison reform bill, which is opposed by both progressive groups and law enforcement alike because it does not address sentencing.  Just last week, Law Enforcement Leaders encouraged members of Congress to instead take action on Senate legislation that includes both sentencing and prison reform, in a series of meetings that included Jared Kushner, Law Enforcement Leaders member Timothy Heaphy, and other bi-partisan advocates.

“Improving prison conditions and reentry services, on their own, will not adequately solve our high rates of incarceration and recidivism,” the letter reads.  “Legislation like the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (H.R.3356) and the CORRECTIONS Act (S. 1994) are useful efforts to improve the lives of those in prison. But such efforts should be coupled with efforts to reduce unnecessary incarceration, as it is in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act... As law enforcement leaders, we want to make clear where we stand: Not only is passing federal mandatory minimum and reentry reform necessary to reduce incarceration, it is also necessary to help police and prosecutors continue to keep crime at its historic lows across the country. We believe the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will accomplish this goal and respectfully urge Congress to swiftly pass it.”

The full text of the letter can be found at this link, and here are a few passages:

Legislation like the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (H.R.3356) and the CORRECTIONS Act (S. 1994) are useful efforts to improve the lives of those in prison. But such efforts should be coupled with efforts to reduce unnecessary incarceration, as it is in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act....

Lawmakers and Presidents of both parties have taken great strides to reform prison systems and develop more effective reentry programs. We are grateful to the White House for allocating resources towards reducing recidivism, through the creation of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry, and for its support of similar legislative efforts. This concerted effort acknowledges the importance of setting an example of criminal justice reform on the federal level, and the impact federal policies have on state and local criminal justice practice.

However, improving prison conditions and reentry services, on their own, will not adequately solve our high rates of incarceration and recidivism.  It will not stop the overuse of incarceration for minor drug-related and low-level, non-violent offenses. To have meaningful reform, we must also address our sentencing laws.  As those fighting crime on the frontlines, we know from firsthand experience that it is ineffective to exhaust resources on reducing the rate of recidivism if there is no accompanying effort to reduce the rate at which people unnecessarily enter prison in the first place.  For this reason, 67 of our members wrote in support of a previous version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in early 2016.

We ask the Senate, House, and White House to work together to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in addition to any reentry legislation.  The Act would shorten unnecessarily long sentences for lower-level offenders, a solution that has been shown in other parts of the country to successfully reduce crime and incarceration together.

April 23, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Lots of notable reporting and commentary as federal prison reform tries to move forward

As reported here last week, there was talk of a federal prison reform bill moving forward in the House of Representatives this week.  This article from The Hill, headlined "Prison reforms groups battle over strategy," highlights that folks on the left may be gumming up the works:

Progressive groups fighting for criminal justice reform are divided over legislation that would allow prisoners to finish their sentences in a halfway house, home confinement or under community supervision if they complete education, job training, drug treatment and other programs while behind bars.  The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP are among the groups saying that legislation that fails to reduce mandatory minimum sentences isn’t worth their support....

But #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group led by Van Jones, the CNN host and former adviser to President Obama, sees the bill sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) that’s supported by the White House as an opportunity for positive change, even if it’s incremental. “It’s a bill that’s moving that we decided as a group we’ll hop in and try to make stronger because I think this is going to move with or without us,” said Jessica Sloan Jackson, the national director and co-founder of #cut50.

Instead of shooting it down, the group said it’s lobbying to make the Prison Reform and Redemption Act stronger.  Sloan Jackson acknowledged #cut50 would rather have the Collins–Jeffries bill include language that reduces mandatory minimum sentences, but recognized the criminal justice reform movement has shifted under Trump. She said #cut50 would like to at least win some changes to help people in prison.  “At this point in the process, I think it’s stupid not to even engage in conversations with folks on the right and in the White House just because you aren’t getting everything you want,” she said.

To supporters of broader reforms, however, the bill is a significant step down from legislation that nearly won approval in the last Congress.  That bill, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), has been reintroduced and would eliminate certain mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It would also give judges more discretion in sentencing.

The Collins–Jeffries bill authorizes $50 million to be appropriated each year from 2018 to 2022 for the Bureau of Prisons to offer education, work training and other programming, but opponents say that’s not enough.  It also lists 48 different categories of crimes that make prisoners ineligible to earn time in pre-release custody for taking these programs, a provision groups backing broader reforms say excludes too many prisoners who are at a high risk of reoffending and need prison programming the most.  “By cutting out or limiting so many people to get incentives to programming you are missing the point,” said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

In a letter to members of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, dozens of groups opposed to the bill said it would do little good if it does not reduce mandatory minimum sentences.  “Only front-end reforms have the power to significantly stem the tide of incarceration, reduce the exorbitant cost of the prison system, and give redress to those inside who are serving sentences that are disproportionate to the severity of the offense,” the groups wrote.

The Collins–Jeffries bill has won support from groups on the right that have backed minimum sentencing reforms. “We’re big advocates for commonsense sentencing reform as well and we hope that happens, but we want to get the ball rolling and we think prison reform is a great place to start,” said Mark Holden, Koch Industries’s general counsel and senior vice president....

Advocates say Jeffries and Collins have been negotiating possible changes to their bill, and a markup that had been expected this week was pushed back to provide time for their work.  In a joint statement to The Hill, Jeffries and Collins said their bill will reunite families and help thousands of Americans get back on their feet.

Similar report on these debates and developments are in this Politico article, headlined "Kushner’s prison-reform push hits bipartisan resistance: The son-in-law of President Donald Trump is pressing for a criminal justice bill that’s narrower than a bipartisan one that has stalled in Congress."  And Van Jones has this new CNN commentary that highlights his work and his support for a prison-reform-only bill under the headlined "Prison reform is possible even in the Trump era."

As long-time readers likely know, I am a strong believer that the best should not be the enemy of the good.  In this setting, I am especially eager to urge federal criminal justice reform advocates to secure ASAP any and whatever improvements they can.  I still can recall, though it is now nearly five years ago, when commentators were asserting that "momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable."  But from 2013 through 2016, despite a President, Attorneys General and many members of both parties advocating all sorts of federal sentencing reforms, not a single statutory change could make it through Congress to the desk of the President.   Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of defendants have been (often over) sentenced to federal prison since 2013.  And while there, as Craig DeRoche highlights in a letter in the New York Times, these prisoners are stuck within a prison system that "offers drastically less opportunity for prisoners to transition to community corrections before the end of their sentence compared with almost all states."

Advocates are right to complain that a compromise bill with only prison reform is insufficient, but the fact that broader bills have been pushed and stalled for half-a-decade leads me to be more than ready to settle for half a loaf.  I have grow so tired of the reform talk that produces no result, though I am sure I am not as exhausted and frustrated as hundreds of thousands of federal prisoners, defendants and their families who have been clinging on to still empty promises of reform potential for year after year after year after year.  Van Jones has a couple of lines in his commentary that capture well my feelings here, as well as my desire to preserve some hope for this process:

My big heartache -- on this topic and so many others -- is how much common ground there is when you get people talking -- and yet how little we actually do about it.  Taking a small but meaningful step together now could allow us to take more steps together later.

April 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Federal prison reform bill reportedly moving forward in House of Representatives

This article in the Hill, headlined "Prison reform bill set for House markup next week," reports that there is some movement in Congress on the federal criminal justice reform bill that would seem to have a reasonable chance of passage this year.  Here are the details:

The House Judiciary Committee is expected next week to mark up a Republican proposal that aims to reduce prison recidivism rates, according to a senior Republican staffer who has been briefed on the plans.

Rep. Doug Collins’s (R-Ga.) Prison Reform and Redemption Act would allow prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in a halfway house or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment.

The White House announced in February it was throwing its support behind prison reform measures such as Collins's bill instead of measures to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences. The announcement marked a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session....

The senior Republican staffer said they feel confident Collins's bill will pass through the House Judiciary Committee. A committee spokesperson said only that the committee is working toward a markup as soon as possible.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have a bill in the Senate that mirrors Collins's proposal.

The full text of the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA) is available at this link, and its text is so dense I find it difficult to effectively summarize its provisions or assess its impact.  Helpfully, FAMM has this detailed summary of the PRRA that runs a full eight pages.  I am hopeful that this news that the PRRA is moving forward in the legislative process could lead more folks to focus more attention on what this bill would and would not do and how many offenders it could impact.

April 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Interesting new US Sentencing Commission analysis of possible impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this recent letter from the USSC's Director of its Office of Research and Data to an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. Here is how the letter gets started:

The Congressional Budget Office has requested the U.S. Sentencing Commission to assist it in its assessment of the budgetary impact of S. 1917, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, were it to be enacted.  Enclosed with this letter is the Commission’s estimate of the impact of several sections of this bill on the sentences that would be imposed on federal offenders as well as the impact on the size of the federal prison population.

As you can see on the enclosed, the Commission has estimated the number of offenders who would be affected by each section of the bill for which an estimate was possible. Some of those sections have both prospective and retroactive impacts.  For the provisions that have both, the Commission has provided separate estimates of the number of offenders affected. The data used for this analysis was Commission data, however the retroactive analyses were based, in part, on information from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as to offenders who were incarcerated as of October 28, 2017.

The detailed "Sentence and Prison Impact Estimate Summary" serves to confirm my long-standing belief that the corrections provisions of SRCA could and would impact many tens of thousands more prisoners than the sentencing reform provisions.  In rough particulars, the USSC analysis suggests about 7,000 current prisoners could benefit from the retroactive sentencing provisions of Title I of the SRCA, whereas over 75,000 current federal prisoners could be eligible for the corrections credits of Title II of the SRCA.  (Prospectively, according to the USSC analysis, a few thousand new offenders would benefit from the sentencing provisions of Title I of the SRCA.  And, though not discussed by the USSC, it is also likely tens of thousands of new offenders would also be able to benefit from the corrections credits of Title II of the SRCA.)

As previously reported, though the SRCA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 16-5 vote last month, the White House has formally expressed support only for the prison reform components of the bill.  Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has indicated he wants to keep pushing the SRCA in its current form, but other important GOP leaders in the Senate and elsewhere seem prepared and eager only to move forward with prison reform at this time.  In light of these new USSC data, I sincerely hope Senator Grassley and lots of criminal justice reform advocates will appreciate that a huge number of current and future federal prisoners could and would benefit from enacting just the corrections piece of the SRCA.  Given widespread support for reform provisions that could have widespread impact, I hope we see some movement on the corrections front soon.  But, sadly, given an array of problematic personalities and politics, I am not optimistic.

A few prior related posts:

March 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Senator Grassley talking up Senate vote on his SRCA bill along with any prison reform bill lacking sentencing reforms

As reported in this post, the White House yesterday signaled its disaffinity for key parts of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act when an official was quoted as saying the "sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done."   But Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley is seemingly not prepared to give up on his bill, as detailed in this new press article headlined "Grassley: I'll fight for sentencing reforms."  Here are the key details:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pledged Wednesday to fight for a criminal justice proposal that includes reducing certain mandatory prison sentences, and he raised the prospect of blocking a package of related reforms the White House and congressional Republicans are said to be interested in if he can't get an agreement....

Late Tuesday, the White House expressed interest in proposals to reduce recidivism among offenders, but not changes to sentences. A White House official who wasn't identified said the sentencing reform piece "does not have a pathway forward to getting done," according to several news reports. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also is said to be an obstacle to getting the legislation to the floor.

On a conference call with Iowa reporters Wednesday, Grassley disputed the idea his bill can't pass and said with Democrats and Republicans, there are at least 60 votes for his proposal. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago on a 16-5 bi-partisan vote.

Grassley said people pushing for a narrower approach just want to get a bill passed. "Well, if they take up prison reform, they’re going to have to have 60 votes to get prison reform up.  And I’ll bet we’ve got, if all the Democrats go along with me, we can stop that from coming up until we get a deal to get a vote on my sentencing reform," Grassley said.

Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been a key figure in getting the Trump administration's court picks through the confirmation process, said he planned to talk to Durbin first before deciding whether to take that route....

On the conference call Wednesday, Grassley said the chances for his proposal, at the moment, aren't very good.  But he said he isn't going to give up.  "This would be a bipartisan policy win for the administration. And it seems like a no-brainer to me."  He said he hasn't spoken to President Trump about the proposal yet.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Trump White House expresses opposition to sentencing reform part of SRCA of 2017

Given that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 could not even get very far in Congress despite the support of then of the President and Attorney General, I have never been all that optimistic about the prospects for the 2017 version of this bill.  Attorney General Sessions has been against it from the get-go, and this new report from the The Hill indicates that the White House has now put its opposition forward.  Here are the details:

The White House on Tuesday said it sees no path forward for legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences, instead throwing its support behind measures aimed at reducing recidivism rates. "The conclusion we reached was that, at this time, it's appropriate for us to go forward with prison reform," a senior administration official said.

The White House's position represents a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor by a 16-5 vote earlier this month over the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a few GOP members on the committee....

A senior White House official said the administration respects Grassley’s efforts, but sees no path forward for sentencing reform. "The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done," the official said. "And so what we see now is an environment where the prison reform does have enough support to get done. And we think that by maybe doing this in smaller bits and pushing the prison reform now, we think this has a better chance of getting done."

A second official said the White House is instead focused on prison reform legislation like Rep. Doug Collins's (R-Ga.) bipartisan Prison Reform and Redemption Act. That bill, co-sponsored by nine Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates.

Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment. "I think that that is a good basis that we can look at and start with," the second senior White House official said of Collins's bill. “I do think that as the conversation continues over the coming weeks, there might be additions, changes, amendments, and we want to go through the regular order committee processes. But I do think that that's a big piece of legislation to look at as a starting point."

A source familiar with the talks with the White House told The Hill in January that Collins’s bill is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said the chairman is focused on passing sound policy, not the path of least resistance. "Bipartisan support continues to grow in the Senate for comprehensive criminal justice reform, which includes providing additional discretion for judges at sentencing for lower level, non-violent drug crimes," he said. "Chairman Grassley’s broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is cosponsored by nearly a quarter of the Senate. Our office continues to have productive conversations with the White House on this issue.”

A senior White House official said President Trump is planning to sign an executive order Wednesday to revamp the Federal Reentry Council and move it from the Department of Justice to the White House. Under the Obama administration, the interagency council worked to reduce recidivism and improve employment, education, housing, health and child welfare outcomes, according to the Department of Justice website.

The White House said Tuesday it sent a list of legislative principles for reform efforts to Congress. In addition to effectively using government resources to reduce crime and incentivize re-entry programs, the White House wants Congress to expand access to prison work programs. It also wants lawmakers to evaluate and facilitate public and private partnerships that improve pre- and post-release employment opportunities for inmates.

I am disappointed but not especially surprised that the White House is indicating that it is only willing to support a more modest prison reform bill rather than all the significant sentencing reforms that appear in the SRCA.  Prez Trump has to date only voiced support for prison reform efforts, and he has formally and informally talked up a "tough and tougher" approach to sentencing drug dealers.  Those eager to see reductions in federal drug sentences should likely be grateful many leading GOP legislators favor such reforms because otherwise Prez Trump might well be actively advocating for enhancing the severity of federal drug sentences.  

I have long been saying that, for various reasons and for lots of offenders, significant prison reform could end up even more consequential than some proposed sentencing reform.  Thus, I sincerely hope that everyone interested in the kinds of reforms that the SRCA represent will be prepared to get behind the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA) and work to make it as effective and expansive and consequential as possible.  Some version of the PRRA looks now to be the only significant federal criminal justice reform proposal with a realistic chance of becoming law in 2018. 

It has already been nearly a decade since we have seen anything close to significant legislative reforms benefiting federal defendants or prisoners. (I am thinking of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act as the last big legislative change, though the 2014 "Drugs-2" guideline amendment was also a very big deal.)  I want to believe that the passage of something like the PRRA could help create new momentum for a range of reforms bog and small in Congress and elsewhere, and so the fact that the White House is endorsing some reform efforts is still encouraging despite its discouraging view of the SRCA.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Interesting statements from Senate Judiciary Committee on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 ... and now passage by 16-5 vote!

As I write this, the Senate Judiciary Committee is in the midst of a discussion of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, and the discussion is quite interesting (though relatively predictable given the articulated past and present positions of various members).   The discussion can be followed at the SJC website here, where one can also find a host of amendments offered by members and Senator Chuck Grassley's official statement.  Here is a portion of Senator Grassley's statement, which summarizes the bill and also why Senator Grassley has become its chief advocate:

Today, we’re also marking up the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This legislation reforms mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals. This is a bipartisan bill that cuts costs, reduces crime, and optimizes the criminal justice system. It is supported by a diverse array of groups including FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, Families against Mandatory Minimums, the NFL, the ACLU, and the NAACP.

It is also a bill with policies that enjoy broad national support. A recent poll showed that the American people strongly support improving our criminal justice system. 87% of Americans and 83% of Republicans believe that mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders should be replaced by a system focused on judicial discretion. 76% of Americans and 68% of Republicans believe the criminal justice system needs significant improvements. 87% of Americans and 80% of Republicans think we’re spending too much money on prisons that should be used instead for treatment, rehabilitation, law enforcement, and victim services.

The bill gives judges additional discretion in sentencing defendants with minimal non-violent criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law. It also applies some of these reforms retroactively, including the Fair Sentencing Act.  But before this happens, judges must first review eligible inmates’ individual cases, including criminal histories and conduct while incarcerated to determine whether a sentence reduction is appropriate.

Importantly, the bill preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins and stiffens penalties for individuals convicted of serious violent felonies. It also adds new mandatory minimums for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and the provision of weapons to terrorists and prohibited countries.

Additionally, it creates a new five-year sentencing enhancement for trafficking of heroin laced with fentanyl.  In addition, the bill establishes recidivism reduction programs to help prepare low-risk inmates to successfully re-enter society. Qualifying inmates may receive reductions to their sentences through time credits upon successful completion of recidivism reduction programming....

Yesterday, Attorney General Sessions sent us a letter setting forth his views on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  When I read his letter, it was almost as if Senator Sessions was back on the Judiciary Committee.  But that’s the problem. He is now the Attorney General and is charged with executing the laws that Congress passes, not interfering with the legislative process.  Certainly we value input from the Department of Justice, but if General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama.

I’ve talked to Attorney General Sessions about this bill many times. He opposes the elimination of mandatory minimums, as do I.  He believes in being tough on crime, and so do I. But I also believe in being fair.  This is a view shared by the last Republican Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, who testified in support of this bill last Congress. So we have one Republican Attorney General who thinks this bill is good policy, and one who has some concerns....

This bill is good public policy. It is the result of years of careful negotiations.  We’ve demonstrated that this bill has significant bipartisan support.  Twenty-two United States Senators are cosponsors, including more than half of the members of this committee.  I look forward to continuing to work with the administration and the House on a legislative solution that the President can sign into law.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: Around 12noon and after an interesting debate over an amendment proposed by Senator Cruz to strip the SRCA of its retroactivity provisions and other reforms, the full SJC voted finally on the bill as proposed and voted 16-5 in favor of it. Now the issue becomes whether Senate Majority Leader will bring the bill to the Senate Floor for a full vote. I fear he will not, but we shall see.

February 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

AG Sessions writes to Senator Grassley to say passages of SRCA "would be a grave error"

Via this new HuffPost piece, headlined "Jeff Sessions Opposes Bipartisan Drug Sentencing Reform Bill," I see that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has now officially weighed in on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 due to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow morning. Here are the basics:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has come out swinging against a bipartisan drug sentencing reform bill that has the support of many of his former Republican colleagues in the Senate, warning that the legislation would be a “grave error” and not allow adequate punishment for “a highly dangerous cohort of criminals.”

In a Feb. 14 letter to his former colleague Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions wrote that he “strongly” urged the Senate to consider the ramifications of the bill.

“In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission.” Sessions wrote. “Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.”

The full text of the three-page letter from AG Sessions to Senator Grassley is embedded in the HuffPost piece (and is also available here thanks to Politico), and it starts this way:

This letter presents the views of the Department of Justice on S. 1917, the "Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017." S. 1917 presents issues of very great importance to the public safety of the United States and will impact a number of cases.

The legislation would reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals, including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms, and would apply retroactively to many dangerous felons. regardless of citizenship or immigration status. In my opinion, if passed in its current form, this legislation would be a grave error....

I would strongly urge the Senate to consider carefully the potential ramifications of this legislation in its current form.  In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission.  Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation's history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.  In addition, as you know, the Administration supports helping former inmates who have served lawfully imposed sentences and have demonstrated a commitment to a better life, and is working closely with Congress to achieve a responsible reform along these lines.  Respectfully, this legislation runs counter to this serious Administration-wide effort.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just saw that Senator Grassley took to Twitter to respond to the letter from AG Sessions:

February 14, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mapping the politics and making the case against the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

Over at the Powerline blog, Paul Mirengoff has this lengthy post about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 titled "Leniency Legislation Is Back."  The post title previews Paul's disaffinity for the SRCA, and his post explains why after some forecasting about the politics surrounding the bill.  I recommend his post in full, and here are excerpts:

The [SRCA] bill that died two years ago is before the Judiciary Committee.  It will breeze through that body. Three of the legislation’s main opponents two years ago — Jeff Sessions, David Perdue and David Vitter — are no longer on the committee (Sessions and Vitter are no longer in the Senate).  Sens. Orrin Hatch and Ted Cruz remain and are likely to oppose the bill again, and Sen. Ben Sasse, a new member of the committee, might join them. But the committee will approve the leniency legislation, most likely with only three dissenters.

What happens then? I hope McConnell will make the same calculation he made two years ago under similar circumstances. However, Team Leniency, which includes the Majority Whip (Sen. Cornyn) and the Judiciary Committee chairman (Sen. Grassley), will push hard for a vote.

Meanwhile, many potential opponents of the legislation are focused on other matters, most notably immigration reform. The opposition troops have not yet been rallied.

On the plus side, though, Sen. Tom Cotton, who along with Jeff Sessions led the charge against leniency legislation two years ago, has his eye on this ball, notwithstanding his key role in the immigration battle.

The biggest difference between now and two years ago is, of course, that Donald Trump is president, not Barack Obama. The second biggest difference, for purposes of the sentencing reform debate, flows from the first — Jeff Sessions is the Attorney General.

Sessions still vigorously opposes reducing the mandatory minimums. His view is shared, I think, by President Trump. I’ve heard that the White House might make its opposition known publicly this week.

If Trump is against the leniency bill, it would be especially pointless for McConnell to bring it to a vote. Why split the GOP members and force them to vote on highly controversial legislation when the president doesn’t want the bill and likely would veto it?

My main purpose in writing this post is to call attention to the push for leniency legislation — to rally the troops. As for the merits of the bill, there are three main reasons why I oppose it.

First, the current mandatory minimums have been instrumental in the dramatic decrease in violent crime the U.S. has enjoyed since they were instituted. Why change a system that has been so effective in reducing violent crime?

Second, the leniency legislation would apply retroactively, Thus, thousands of prisoners could petition to be released even though they haven’t completed their legally imposed sentences.  Given the high recidivism rate for federal drug offenders — around 70 percent — the legislation is guaranteed to yield more crime, and not just by those released early but also by those sentenced to less time under the bill.

Third, the leniency legislation grants judges too much discretion in sentencing.  We know from the high-crime era before mandatory minimums that liberal judges will abuse that discretion to go soft on serious offenders.  With a raft of new Obama-appointed judges, this error will likely produce the same sort of damage we lived through during that era....

As I said, the leniency bill is a done deal in committee. What counts now is how President Trump and Majority Leader McConnell respond.

I’m cautiously optimistic that the legislation will again die on the vine, but we shouldn’t simply assume that it will. We need to watch this one closely.

Paul's analysis and criticism of the SRCA is crude in a number of particulars, mostly because he is discussing and taking issue only with Title I of the SRCA dealing with sentencing reform, while ignoring the arguably more consequential parts of the bill dealing with corrections and the creation of a national crime commission.  But I still thought it useful to reprint the thinking and rhetoric of those inclined to be against the bipartisan criminal justice reform effort moving forward in the Senate this week.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: One reason I described Paul Mirengoff's criticisms of the sentencing part of the SRCA as crude is because I thought he had his data off about the "recidivism rate for federal drug offenders" which he pegs at "around 70 percent."   I just had a chance to check his numbers aided by this big report that the US Sentencing Commission released last year titled "Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders." Here is one key statistic from the report's executive summary: 

Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to a cohort of state drug offenders released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9 percent of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.

Paul may have been thinking of the BJS report on state drug offenders when coming up with his 70 percent number, but the Commission data shows the recidivism rate to be much lower. That said, even a much lower predicated recidivism rate does not completely undercut his basis for arguing that retroactive application of sentencing reductions will "yield more crime."   By the same token, these recidivism realities themselves help make the case for corrections part of the SRCA; high rates of recidivism provide strong evidence that our prison system needs the kinds of "Recidivism reduction programming and productive activities" that appear in Title II of the SRCA.

February 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 now has 20 sponsors in the Senate but...

1518381838864this Roll Call article suggests Senators cannot figure out how to break a "logjam" that is created by the Attorney General and Prez Trump. The Roll Call article is headlined "Senators Ponder How to Break Criminal Justice Logjam: With Trump not on board with bipartisan bill, 'we’re stuck,' Grassley says," and here are excerpts:

Senate Judiciary Committee members grappled Thursday with the best strategy to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, since the leading bill has broad bipartisan support but the White House apparently backs only one part of it.

Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa set a markup next week for a bill that represents a hard-negotiated compromise — first struck in 2015 — that backers say would pass the Senate with a bipartisan supermajority if brought to the floor. It is expected to easily advance from the committee and could be a signature legislative accomplishment for the Senate.

A broad and politically varied coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups off Capitol Hill generally back the overhaul, which has two main components. One section aims to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and the other aims to ease re-entry for prisoners.

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t bring a version of the legislation to the floor in the last Congress because of opposition to the sentencing section from law enforcement groups and some Republican senators, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told the committee Thursday. And now, President Donald Trump has voiced support only for the prison changes.

Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, said, “I honestly don’t see a path forward” this year for the broader bipartisan bill. “I’m worried that if we just revisit the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which failed during the Obama administration, given this change in the new administration and its views on the sentencing reform component of it, we’re going to have nothing to show for our efforts,” said Cornyn, using the bill’s formal title. “I know we all tried to work together on this and it just didn’t work out.”

Instead, Cornyn said the committee’s best opportunity to move a criminal justice bill would be his legislation, proposed along with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, which contains only provisions aimed at easing re-entry for prisoners — “and then building on that as we can” with an amendment process on the floor. That process could include amendments on sentencing, based on a bill introduced in previous sessions by Lee and Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

Grassley responded that the compromise bill would be the best way to get the sentencing and prison provisions into law. The measure currently has 19 co-sponsors, and he said the backers are seeking more. “It’s a matter of process and around here — nothing gets done unless it’s bipartisan,” Grassley said. “And I don’t often agree with Sen. Durbin, but we put together a bill that we worked really hard and we think it’s the only way of advancing both bills.”

Whitehouse said he would support both ways of moving forward since the sentencing bill was proposed five years ago, but that Cornyn’s strategy “actually might provide a more realistic way of getting this matter resolved.” The Senate, however, could end up in the same place if the prison bill gets to the floor and then a supermajority of senators add the sentencing portion back in with an amendment, Whitehouse said. “Waiting here for there to be the ultimate global concord to sort this out has yielded five years of nothing and I’m ready to go forward,” Whitehouse said.

Grassley countered, however, that there could still be senators who would block the prison bill from the floor if they knew there were more than 60 senators supporting a sentencing amendment. “That’s what we face,” Grassley said. “There’s some people around here [who] are just a little bit afraid of what you call an Assistant U.S. Attorneys Association and they’re stopping everything from being done that is so successful in the other states. When people are willing to stand up to those leaders of the Senate, we’ll get something done in both areas.”

Interestingly, this new Axios article has an entry, headed "Grassley twists Trump’s arm for criminal justice reform," reporting on an interview that suggests Senator Grassley might seek to use his political capital with the President to try to get the SRCA into law:

Grassley didn't deny the White House’s cool reception of his bill, but he plans to use his substantial political clout to press Trump to change his mind.

As I've reported, Trump bends over backwards to keep Grassley happy. He knows that as Judiciary Chairman, Grassley played a crucial role in delivering two of Trump's biggest successes so far: the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a modern record for circuit court judges in a president's first year.

"I've carried a lot of water for the White House," Grassley told me. "They ought to give some consideration for the close working relationship we’ve had on issues we agree on." "I think people at the White House have not wanted to go against Gen. Sessions," he added, before closing with a sentence crafted perfectly to appeal to Trump's ego. "This is an opportunity for a bipartisan victory by the President of the United States."

I think the best way to convince Trump to support this bill is to move it for votes ASAP in the full Senate and House.  I suspect that if 70+ Senators and 300+ members of the House vote for these reforms, which seems quite possible, the Prez will be inclined to sign it.  For that reason, perhaps we should start a hash tag campaign: #voteonSRCA2017.

A few prior related posts:

February 11, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 on the agenda for the Senate Judiciary Committee coming meeting

A helpful colleague made sure I saw the exciting news appearing at the very bottom of this agenda for an Executive Business Meeting of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  After a long list on nominees, we see on that agenda this item:


II. Bills
S.1917 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (Grassley, Durbin, Graham, Feinstein, Lee, Leahy, Flake, Whitehouse, Klobuchar, Booker)   

I think this notice means that there is now some tangible movement (dare I say momentum) on one very significant federal criminal justice proposal.  Clicking though to the text of S.1917 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, one discovers that this bill has a whole lot of stuff stuffed into its three big sections. For example, "TITLE I — SENTENCING REFORM" includes, inter alia:

Sec. 101. Reduce and restrict enhanced sentencing for prior drug felonies."

Sec. 102. Broadening of existing safety valve....

Sec. 106. Mandatory minimum sentences for domestic violence offenses....

Sec. 108. Inventory of Federal criminal offenses.

Sec. 109. Fentanyl.

And "TITLE II — CORRECTIONS ACT" includes, inter alia:

Sec. 202. Recidivism reduction programming and productive activities.

Sec. 203. Post-sentencing risk and needs assessment system....

Sec. 207. Promoting successful reentry.

Sec. 208. Parole for juveniles.

Sec. 209. Compassionate release initiative.  

And "TITLE III — NATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMISSION ACT" would create another notable federal criminal justice entity.

I can state with confidence that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is surely opposed to the provisions in Title I of this bill, but I he may be supportive of Title II and maybe even Title III. And, of course, since he is no longer in the Senate, Jeff Sessions does not get a vote on legislation, and it will be interesting to see (assuming there is a vote tomorrow of sometime soon) whether there are many (or any) strong opponents of this bill even in this huge form.

February 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Encouraging new report on prospects for prison reform legislation emerging from Congress

This report from The Hill, headlined "Prison reform gains new momentum under Trump," suggests that recent talk from the White house about prison reform might soon become real action from Congress.  Here are the details of an encouraging story:

Momentum is building under the Trump administration for criminal justice reform. The path forward, however, is looking a little different than it has in the past.

Previous efforts to reform the justice system have focused on cutting prison time for convicted felons. But those taking part in the current discussions say the focus has shifted to preventing ex-convicts from returning to jail, suggesting this approach has the best chance of winning approval from both Congress and the White House.

A source familiar with the talks between the White House and GOP members of Congress said a bipartisan prison-reform bill offered by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act, co-sponsored by eight Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement. To do so, prisoners have to complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. The legislation directs the attorney general to identify the most effective programs, which could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment....

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Collins and Cornyn are working closely together to ensure any differences between their bills are reconciled, the source familiar with talks said.

President Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, have met with lawmakers and advocates to talk about prison reform and the success states have had in the last few months, signaling there’s White House support for legislation. “The administration strongly believes that prison reform is a conservative issue that will help reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars and has the potential to gain bipartisan support,” a White House source said.

Bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts until now have largely focused on proposals to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for certain nonviolent drug offenders and armed career criminals.  While talks now appear focused on prison reform, advocates say sentencing reform isn’t off the table just yet.

Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which started the national Right on Crime campaign, said there’s more divisiveness around sentencing reform. “My best educated guess is that at some point that will become part of the discussion, but right now there is an encouraging [group] coalescing around prison reform.”

Rollins notes that criminal justice reform is a big issue and commended the administration for tackling it one piece at a time. “When trying to get it done all at once, you often end up with nothing,” she said. “I think this administration is smart to focus on prison reform for now.”

I share the view that an effort to get everything in one big reform bill can sometimes prevent getting any bill through the legislative process. And given that a good prison reform bill with lots of potential sentence-reduction credits could prove even more consequential for current and future federal prisoners than even broad mandatory minimum reforms, I am especially encouraged by the prospect of a prison reform bill being the first priority for Congress in the months ahead.  Of course, as with all parts of sentencing reform, the devil is in the details; I will not get to revved up about possible reform until the particulars are made public.  But this report heightens my hope that some significant federal reform may actually get done in the first part of 2018.

Recent related post:

January 24, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Interesting report of plans for Prez Trump to hold a "listening session on prison reform" this week

Axios has this notable new scoop about notable White House plans including President Trump under the headline "Scoop: Jared's policy push on prison reform."  Here are the details:

President Trump tomorrow will hold a listening session on prison reform, after six months of quiet exploration of the issue by senior adviser Jared Kushner (who turns 37 today).

Why it matters: The White House sees this as a conservative issue (save money, cut crime) that could get bipartisan support (spending for workforce development), heading into a midterm election year when it'll be even harder to get congressional accomplishments than it was last year.

  • Under the auspices of Kushner's Office of American Innovation, administration officials have met with faith-based leaders, former inmates who have been rehabilitated, conservative leaders, and experts on the issue.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions will join Thursday's session.
  • Jared and his wife, Ivanka Trump, held a dinner discussion at their home, including Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)
  • The administration is exploring possible legislative proposals and administrative actions. An early step could include a push for public awareness involving churches.
  • The issue came up during this weekend's Camp David meeting with GOP congressional leaders.

Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, a longtime champion of the issue, told me he has been impressed with Kushner's passion, and that the approach the administration is exploring "has been showed to markedly reduce recidivism."

Jared Kushner's interest and "passion" for criminal justice reform is not big or new news, but the direct involvement of President Trump and Attorney General Sessions in talks about possible federal reforms does strike me as big news. It is worth watching as the rest of this week unfolds whether and how the White House or the Prez himself speaks about this planned meeting (either before or after it takes place).  I am still not prepared to assert that significant federal statutory sentencing reform is becoming likely, but this reported meeting seems like a good and important sign.

January 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Is criminal justice reform really "poised to take off in 2018"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Examiner article headlined "Criminal justice reform poised to take off in 2018."  Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform came back with such renewed energy this year after sputtering out in Congress in 2016 that meaningful bipartisan legislation is poised for success in 2018.

In October, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, announced he and a bipartisan group of senators were reintroducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would overhaul prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and allow for more judicial discretion during sentencing. The bill mirrors legislation introduced last Congress that failed after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to bring it up.

Then days later, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, reintroduced the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers In Our National System Act, which builds off of successful criminal justice reforms in the senators' respective states.

The CORRECTIONS Act requires the Department of Justice and its Federal Bureau of Prisons to find a way to reduce inmate recidivism rates. It also calls for lower-risk inmates to be put in less-restrictive conditions to reduce prison costs and allow for more resources to be shifted to law enforcement. The legislation also expands recidivism-reduction programs, and requires the federal probation office to plan for re-entry of prisoners ahead of time....

And finally, the Mens Rea Reform Act was introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, David Perdue of Georgia and Rand Paul of Kentucky....

Kara Gotsch, who oversees the Sentencing Project's federal advocacy work, told the Washington Examiner, she sees the likelihood of legislation passing as "small" and cited changes being made at the federal level in the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a cause for concern. "Areas to watch are how Sessions' harsher charging and sentencing policies take effect now that more Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys are being installed," Gotsch said, noting the Justice Department has predicted an increase in the prison population in 2018 after four years of decline under the Obama administration.

"Also, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is poised to issue new guideline amendments related to alternatives to incarceration which would expand eligibility for federal dependents to receive a non-incarceration sentence. I will be watching to see how far they extend it."

The Justice Department says it will "continue to enforce the law" as the nation faces an opioid epidemic and rising violent crime. “In 2016, 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. For two straight years, violent crime has been on the rise. Americans voted for President Trump's brand of law and order and rejected the soft on crime policies that made it harder to prosecute drug traffickers and put dangerous criminals back on the street where our law enforcement officers face deadly risks every day," Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said.

Where Congress could fail in 2018, states are there to pick up the slack....

For example, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed an 18-bill criminal justice reform package in March, and state legislators in Florida ended the year championing various bills that they say would help reduce the state’s burgeoning prison population. A pair of measures are set to be taken up that would implement pre-arrest diversion programs statewide that Florida lawmakers say would reduce crime and incarceration rates, as well as a measure that would restore voting rights to some 1.6 million felons in the Sunshine State.

Other states such as New Jersey, Virginia, Alabama and New York elected candidates during the 2017 elections who openly support criminal justice reform, setting up the possibility for revamping at the state and local levels next year.

Phil Murphy, who was elected in a landslide to be the new governor of New Jersey, promised he would put the Garden State in a position to pass criminal justice reform. On his campaign website, he promises changes such as creating a commission to examine mandatory minimum laws, implementing bail reform to prevent someone from being stuck behind bars for being unable to pay a fine, and the legalization of marijuana “so police can focus resources on violent crime.”

"It's important to recognize that 2017 saw passage of criminal justice reform in red and blue states throughout the nation, in contrast to reforms stalling on the federal level," Udi Ofer, deputy national political director at the America Civil Liberties Union said. The ACLU worked to help pass 57 pieces of criminal justice reform legislation in 19 states, he noted.

"From sentencing reform in Louisiana and bail reform in Connecticut, to drug reform in Oregon and probation reform in Georgia, this year proved that the movement for criminal justice reform continues to be strong in the states, even under a Trump-Sessions administration," Ofer said, adding that in 2018, the ACLU expects "these reforms to continue, and to grow, particularly around bail reform, prosecutorial reform and sentencing reform."

For 2018, he said the ACLU is working on bail reform in 33 states including California, Georgia, Ohio and New York. In July, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, which would encourage states to change or replace the process they use for allowing people to pay money to avoid sitting in jail until their trial. Ofer also said he expected the issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform to "play a larger role in federal and state elections in 2018" following the wins of candidates supporting such reforms in 2017.

As is my general tendency, I am hopeful but not optimistic about the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform during a pivotal election year. If other possible "easier" legislative priorities get completed (or falter), I could see at least some modest reforms making it through the legislative process. But inertia can be a potent political and practical force in this setting, especially in an election year, so I am not holding my breath.

December 31, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Does the election of Doug Jones in Alabama increase the prospects of federal statutory sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Marshall Project piece headlined "What the Doug Jones Election Means for Criminal Justice Reform." The subheadline of the piece, "The Alabama Democrat represents the flip-side of his predecessor," perhaps best frames the article that follows, and here are excerpts:

Last year, prospects were looking good for a bipartisan effort in Congress to overhaul federal sentencing. But after long and careful negotiations, one senator almost single-handedly torpedoed the measure: the junior Republican from Alabama, Jeff Sessions.

Sessions, of course, went on to become Attorney General, dimming hopes even further.  But Tuesday’s election of his unlikely replacement, Democrat Doug Jones, hands the seat to a former federal prosecutor who has advocated for less harsh sentencing and more alternatives to prison.  “Doug Jones was a groundbreaking voice for prosecutorial reform to end mass incarceration,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.  “He was one of the first prosecutors to speak out about how prosecutors can and should help reduce unnecessary incarceration.”

Jones, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, was best known as a prosecutor for securing the convictions of two former Ku Klux Klan members in the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four young black girls.  The men were convicted in 2001 and 2002.

Over the last few years, Jones, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday after his victory, has begun to openly push for changes that would give prosecutors more leeway.  He included criminal justice among his top campaign priorities, taking aim at mandatory minimum sentencing, disparities that send a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos to prison, and “three strikes” laws.  “These are bipartisan issues Democrats and Republicans agree on,” Jones told a group of Alabama State University students last month. “Try to reduce the crime, keep our communities safer and at the same time cut down the costs of the criminal justice system.”...

It’s too soon to tell what Jones’ election means for federal sentencing reform. Progress stalled under President Donald Trump, and Sessions has stayed true to his law-and-order roots, calling on U.S. Attorneys to seek the highest possible charges and rolling back a guideline that had allowed prosecutors to ignore some drug charges.  Legislators and advocates instead have focused on trying to create more re-entry programs, prison educational opportunities and job skills training.

But Jones’ election elevates one of the effort’s most vocal supporters.  Two years ago, Jones and another former federal prosecutor, James E. Johnson, and other law enforcement officials formed Law Enforcement Leaders To Reduce Crime & Incarceration, a bipartisan, reform-minded advocacy group.  Jones was among members who signed a letter supporting the effort that ultimately died in Congress....  “While I sought harsh punishments for violent offenders as U.S. attorney, not all cases require severe sentences,” Jones wrote on his website. “Judges and prosecutors should be given flexibility and be empowered to decide the fate of those before them in the justice system.”

For the time being, the prospects of any congressional federal sentencing reform rests primarily in the hands of Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Prez Donald Trump.  Senator McConnell can refuse (and so far has refused) to bring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act up for a floor vote even though some GOP Senators have said, as noted here, the SCRA could get 70 votes in the Senate right now.   But the SCRA surely would not get 70 votes in Prez Trump were to come out vocally against it, and Senator McConnell surely will not bring it up for a floor vote if he knows doing so would be against the wishes of Prez Trump.  Those realities likely mean that the new Senate 51-49 math and the new voice of Senator-elect Jones will not in any major way directly impact the prospects for congressional federal sentencing reforms in the months ahead.

That all said, I do think the Jones victory in Alabama still has some political ripples in the arena of crime and punishment.  As he did in the gubernatorial race in Virginia, Prez Trump used his Twitter thumbs to make a "weak on crime" attack on the Democratic candidate in Alabama.  That candidate still prevailed, and did particularly well in the suburbs where it is often thought the "soft on crime" epithet is most effective (although surely other factors mattered to suburban Alabama voters earlier this week).   Including the New Jersey race for governor also decided last month, we can and should now say that in the last three significant state-wide elections, the candidate obviously more supportive of criminal justice reform prevailed.

I make these points not to assert that many political candidates are going to now view criminal justice reform advocacy as a winning political strategy, although I expect (and hope) some will.  Rather, I am making the more subtle (but important) point that no current politician or would-be candidate should any more be unduly afraid that supporting criminal justice reform could doom them in the next political cycle.  For much of the last half-century, the conventional wisdom was that any politician who could be effectively painted as soft on crime was sure to lose in the next election  (and I suspect this conventional wisdom in part accounts for why so little significant criminal justice reform was actually achieved during the Obama era).  With every significant victory by any person who calls for criminal justice reform on the campaign trail, that old conventional wisdom becomes much less conventional and much less wise.

December 14, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issues statement in support of sentencing provisions of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

As reported in this news release, yesterday "the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement in support of certain provisions in the Senate’s bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, which proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for particular nonviolent offenses and to return discretion to judges in more cases." This three-page statement is available at this link, and here are excerpts (with footnotes omitted):

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, by majority vote, supports certain sentencing reduction provisions in the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, recently introduced in the Senate.  The bill proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for particular nonviolent offenses and to return discretion to judges on sentencing in more cases.  It moves sentencing levels down in many cases so that low-level crimes are adequately but not excessively punished.  It also makes retroactive sentencing reductions in crimes involving crack cocaine, which, prior to the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, were punished with extreme sentences compared with crimes involving powder cocaine.  The fair administration of justice requires criminal penalties to be proportional to the offense committed and for similar crimes to be subject to similar punishments. In addition, fair administration depends on public faith in the American justice system; this bipartisan bill takes important steps to restore the basis for that faith by addressing longstanding inequity.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act contains necessary and important steps towards more equitable punishments in the federal system, advancing the fair administration of justice by better fitting punishment to crime.  If enacted, it would help reduce the outsize U.S. prison population without jeopardizing public safety.  It stands in contrast to the change in charging policy announced by the United States Department of Justice in May.  The Department of Justice’s policy regarding mandatory minimum sentences will result in lengthier, harsher prison sentences and additional taxpayer costs for both actual imprisonment and post-incarceration integration unless it is changed or checked by Congress through sentencing reform....

The application of harsher penalties and mandatory minimum sentences historically falls hardest on communities of color.  Although facially race-neutral, these policies have been applied in a racially disparate manner, raising concerns regarding legitimacy and fairness of our nation’s criminal justice system.  Use of mandatory minimum sentencing contributed to high incarceration rates for African-American and Latino men, despite comparable rates of drug use across communities of all races.  Devastating, community-wide impacts of these policies include one in nine children of color having a parent in prison.

National and international bodies have noted racially disparate treatment throughout the American criminal justice system, including in the application of mandatory minimum sentences.  Perhaps the most notable and egregious example of the racial disparities can be found in the different mandatory minimum sentences provided for offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine.  A bipartisan consensus in Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, reducing disparities between mandatory minimum sentences for different drugs, in part “because the public had come to understand sentences embodying the 100-to-1 ratio as reflecting unjustified race-based differences.” These changes should be made retroactive as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 proposes in order to reduce excessive punishments for those already sentenced.

November 14, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 06, 2017

NAAUSA and six other law enforcement groups write to Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, per the attached letter.

Last week I blogged here about a letter sent to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Federal Public and Community Defenders to urge passage of legislation to reform federal mandatory sentencing laws.  Today I received a copy of a quite different letter also sent to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee this time coming from the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and six other law enforcement groups.  Here is how the letter, which can be downloaded below, gets started:

We write to express the opposition of the undersigned organizations to the recently-introduced Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917).  We represent federal, state and local law enforcement officers, agents and prosecutors responsible for the investigation and prosecution of drug traffickers and other violent offenders involved in the distribution and sale of dangerous drugs.

The public safety of our communities across the nation would be negatively impacted by this legislation.  The legislation undermines mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking and weakens the tools that law enforcement authorities need to enforce the law, prosecute criminals and dismantle domestic and international drug trafficking organizations.  The legislation authorizes the early release of thousands of previously convicted armed career criminals, serial violent criminals, and repeat drug traffickers. And it will make it more difficult for law enforcement to pursue the most culpable drug dealers and secure their cooperation to pursue others in drug distribution rings and networks, domestic and international.

The bill would undermine law enforcement investigatory efforts by giving serious criminals the best of both worlds: less sentencing exposure and the choice to not cooperate with law enforcement in further investigatory efforts.

This is not the time for the Congress to consider changes like these that will impair the ability of law enforcement to take serious drug traffickers off the street.  Violent crime across America continues to grow, and a raging heroin and opioid abuse epidemic shows no sign of ebbing. For the second year in a row, violent crime increased across the United States, according to FBI annual crime data.  Homicides increased by 8.6%, with cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Kansas City, Missouri witnessing massive increases in their homicide rates.  Meanwhile, a national epidemic of overdose deaths, caused largely by heroin and opioid drug abuse, ravages the country.  No state is immune from the deadly consequences.  Over 47,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2014, an all-time high. In 2015 that number rose to 50,000; last year it continued to skyrocket to 64,000 people.  Daily drug overdose deaths, including those from heroin use, exceed those caused by auto accidents.

Download LE Groups Ltr re S 1917 Nov02-2017

November 6, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, November 04, 2017

"Can Jared Kushner Save Criminal Justice Reform?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this recent Marshall Project article about a figure who has long been seen as an important figure in the fate of federal criminal justice reform in the Trump Era.  Here are some excerpts:

In July, [Pat] Nolan, now director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform and a leading figure in a conservative reform effort that goes under the rubric Right on Crime, picked up the newspaper and saw that Jared Kushner was well-placed to advance the cause. Nolan reconnected and began sending Kushner memos on how private businesses and church groups could be mobilized to become mentors for released prisoners. Kushner almost always responded within hours.

Nolan’s faith has been bolstered by a flurry of meetings, summits and dinners that Kushner has held in recent weeks with lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates, leading the more optimistic activists to believe the tough-on-criminals posture of President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions may not mean a complete freeze on federal reforms.

Many wonder whether Kushner has the clout and skill to maneuver any reform to enactment. No new initiatives or official messages of support for reform legislation have come from a White House that has ratcheted up enforcement of drug and immigration offenses. But given a window into the 36-year-old’s dealing with bipartisan groups seeking reforms, Nolan thinks Kushner, driven by his own personal frustrations with the criminal justice system, stands a chance of success. “He cares passionately about this,” Nolan said....

In September, Nolan was among faith leaders invited by Kushner to discuss ideas for a national mentoring program to help released prisoners resettle in their communities -- a measure that would require minimal federal effort. Later that afternoon, Kushner convened a roundtable of politicians, criminal justice reform groups, religious leaders, employers and others in the Indian Treaty Room in the East Wing of the Eisenhower Executive Building. The conference was called the “Prisoner Reentry Summit” and participants had been sent questions in advance to prepare.

“Please let us know if there are ways in which the President can amplify already successful programs, Federal and private sector/nonprofit, or assist in making a program more effective,” the questionnaire said. “While suggestions for the investment of Federal resources are appreciated, please also be sure to highlight opportunities that do not require Federal funding.”In a navy blue suit, Kushner sat in the middle of a long conference table flanked to his left and right by Nolan and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. Others at the meeting included U.S. senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and John Cornyn of Texas, U.S. representatives Chris Collins of New York and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta.

Participants spoke for three to five minutes each on a range of challenges faced by released prisoners, including housing, education and employment while Kushner took notes, asked questions and identified next steps, Holden said. A Department of Justice official who attended signaled that the DOJ was interested in drug courts and programs that could help released prisoners transition back to communities, a surprise to those who feared that Attorney General Sessions’ agenda would only focus on enforcing laws and punishing criminals. “It wasn’t ‘lock em up and throw away the key,’” Holden said. (About a week after the summit, the Department of Justice announced that it was awarding more than $9.5 million to juvenile and family drug court programs across the country.)...

No new initiatives have been launched by the White House since the meeting but other positive signs for reform have followed. Early this month a bipartisan group of senators led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin and several others reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a popular bipartisan bill that died last year when it was never put up for a vote. The bill would give judges more discretion at sentencing to skirt mandatory minimum sentence requirements for people with short criminal histories, and its revival was unexpected; Sessions had strongly opposed the bill last year when he was in the Senate.“Something happened,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, Justice Program director of the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. “We don’t know what happened. What I found interesting about the resurrection of this particular bill is that Sessions did a lot of work to kill this bill.”

Sources in the Senate say Kushner has pledged White House support for the bill. Does that mean he believes he has more sway with President Trump than Sessions does? Or has Sessions changed his mind or reached a compromise with Kushner and senators? Attempts to reach Kushner through the White House communications director were not successful. A DOJ spokesman declined an interview request for Sessions....

In talks with Nolan, Kushner has indicated that he believes Sessions is more of a proponent of second chance programs than many have been led to believe. Sessions’ Senate record includes sponsoring legislation that reduced the discrepancies for penalties for using crack versus cocaine and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. “He thinks that the press and the public have misinterpreted where Sessions is coming from,” Nolan said. “He thinks there is a lot more commitment from Sessions to working toward reforms. ”But even if Kushner can hurdle Sessions’ reservations, Whitehouse said, White House leadership will be needed to persuade House Speaker Paul Ryan to guide a bill through a House obstacle course, and convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to give the bill floor time and line up votes. “There are ways to get there but it requires levers to be applied that the White House has and I do not,” Whitehouse said....

Of the conservatives who have Kushner’s ear, Whitehouse says, “To be blunt, I am skeptical of their motives.” But having participated in two meetings with Kushner on the subject, Whitehouse said he believes the president’s son-in-law is serious about improving the criminal justice system. “I’ve seen the way he talks about it,” Whitehouse said. “I haven’t the faintest idea of how he polls in the White House,” but “I know he’s sincere about this.”

November 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Federal defenders write Senators in support of federal criminal justice reforms including mens rea reforms

A helpful reader pointed me to this lengthy letter sent to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Federal Public and Community Defenders to urge passage of legislation to reform federal mandatory sentencing laws. The letter's introduction highlights the themes of a document worth a full read:

Federal Defenders represent most of the indigent defendants in 91 of the 94 federal judicial districts nationwide. Over 80 percent of people charged with federal crimes cannot afford a lawyer, and nearly 80 percent of people charged with federal crimes are Black, Hispanic, or Native American.  Our clients bear the overwhelming, and disproportionate, brunt of mandatory minimum sentences.

Real sentencing reform is desperately needed.  The most significant driver of the five-fold increase in the federal prison population over the past thirty years has been mandatory minimums, particularly those for drug offenses.  The extreme levels of incarceration come at a human and financial cost that is unjustified by the legitimate purposes of sentencing, and that perversely undermines public safety.  The mandatory minimums that Congress intended for drug kingpins and serious traffickers are routinely and most often applied to low-level non-violent offenders.  Moreover, mandatory minimums have a racially disparate impact, and have been shown to be charged in a racially disparate manner.

The decision to charge mandatory minimums, or not, is entirely in the hands of prosecutors.  This provides a single government actor with unchecked power that is wholly inconsistent with traditional notions of legality and due process.  In light of the proven, longstanding problems created by mandatory minimums, they should be eliminated altogether.  Sentencing authority should be placed back in the hands of neutral judges where it has traditionally resided.

Short of those more comprehensive reforms, the Smarter Sentencing Act or the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would be a good start.  Both bills, in different ways and to different extents, would reduce mandatory minimums and expand judicial discretion, thus reducing unnecessarily harsh sentences and lessening unchecked prosecutorial power.  Neither bill is perfect.  Congress should pass one or the other, or a combination of the two.  Each of these bills represents a compromise, and should not be weakened any further.

We urge you not to pass the Corrections Act as a standalone measure.  It would provide time off at the end of a sentence only for certain select inmates, and would have little or no impact on the poor and racial minorities who comprise the vast majority of federal prisoners and are most in need of relief.  All inmates should have an opportunity to earn time off at the end of their sentences through demonstrated efforts at rehabilitation.  This too is consistent with traditional notions of punishment. However, the Corrections Act would make incentives to participate in rehabilitative programming unavailable to those who need it most.

We do support the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017 because it embodies the fundamental principle that a person should be convicted of and punished for a crime only if he or she acted with a guilty mind, and because it would prevent many of our clients with low-level involvement in drug offenses from being over-charged and over-punished for the conduct of others of which they were not aware and that they did not intend.  However, mens rea reform is not a substitute for sentencing reform. True criminal justice reform must tackle the single biggest contributor to injustice in the federal system: mandatory minimum sentences.

November 1, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Is it time for new optimism or persistent pessimism on the latest prospects for statutory federal sentencing reform?

At the spectacular Advancing Justice summit yesterday (basics here), a whole set of "in-the-know" folks stated that there is wide bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for federal sentencing reform.  Specifically, as this brief Axios piece notes, Senator Mike Lee stated in the event's first session that "the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would have received 70 votes in the Senate if voted on last year, and would still get 70 votes in the Senate this year." (This Axios piece also report that Senator Lee "wants a vote on the bill before the end of the year.") Senator Lee's views here were echoed later in the day during a keynote speech by Senator Chuck Grassley and during a panel discussion by a number of in-the-know public policy advocates.

But, as optimistic as this all may sound, Matt Ford has this new this big piece at The Atlantic indicating that some key Democratic voices may be unwilling to move forward with sentencing reform proposals if mens rea reform is going to be part of the package.  The piece's headline highlights why pessimism may again be the justified perspective here: "Could a Controversial Bill Sink Criminal-Justice Reform in Congress?: A debate over mens rea stalled the last push for reform. Now, a similar battle could be brewing."   Here is a snippet:

A bill drafted by a group of Senate Republicans earlier this year would tweak the mens rea requirement in federal statutes, adding a default rule for juries to find criminal intent for federal offenses that don’t explicitly have an intent standard. (Mens rea is a legal term derived from the phrase “guilty mind” in Latin.) If enacted, federal prosecutors would need to prove a defendant’s state of mind to obtain a conviction for a host of existing crimes. Conservatives and criminal-defense organizations argue the measure is a necessary part of the congressional effort to reform sentencing and incarceration.

But some Senate Democrats fear the measure is far too sweeping and could be a back-door attack on federal health and environmental regulations that police corporate behavior. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told me earlier this week that he wouldn’t support a sentencing-reform bill if it included the change to mens rea. “It would turn me into a warrior against it,” he emphasized. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, would also oppose such a bill, a spokesman confirmed.

Other Senate Democrats criticized a similar measure that passed the House during the last criminal-justice-reform push, which centered on a sentencing-reform bill.  In January 2016, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a longtime supporter of reform, said that version of the mens rea proposal “should be called the White Collar Criminal Immunity Act.” (Like Whitehouse, Durbin serves on the Judiciary Committee, which would need to sign off on any mens rea- or sentencing-reform bills.)  Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a speech the following month that the House proposal would “make it much harder for the government to prosecute hundreds of corporate crimes — everything from wire fraud to mislabeling prescription drugs.”  Negotiations over criminal-justice reform ultimately collapsed that summer as the presidential election entered its final stretch.

I have said before and will say again that this kind of opposition to a reform designed to safeguard a fundamental part of a fair and effective federal criminal justice system shows just how we got to a world with mass incarceration and mass supervision and mass collateral consequences.  Nobody seems willing or able to understand that making life easier for prosecutors anywhere serves to increase the size and reach and punitiveness of our criminal justice systems everywhere.  In turn, if you want a less extreme and severe criminal justice system anywhere, the best way to advance the cause is by seeking and advocating to limit government prosecutorial powers everywhere.

So, to answer the question in the title of this post, I think I have to stick with persistent pessimism for the time being.

October 27, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

NFL Commish and player write to Senators to "offer the National Football League's full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017"

Images (4)In this post yesterday, I noted the report that the NFL was endorsing federal sentencing reform efforts.  One form of that endorsement emerged today in this form of a letter to US Senators.  This ESPN article provides the basics:

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin co-signed a letter sent to congressional leaders in support of a bipartisan legislative bill that seeks criminal justice reform.  The letter states the NFL is offering its "full support" of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, which seeks reforms and targets enhanced mandatory minimums for prior drug felons, increases judicial discretion for sentencing, and reforms enhanced mandatory minimums and sentences.

"The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would address many of the issues on which our players have worked to raise awareness of over the last two seasons," the letter, which is dated Oct. 16, reads. "... If enacted, it would be a positive next step in our collective efforts to move our nation forward."...

Asked Monday about a potential pushback from the White House, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said he didn't know the President Donald Trump's position on the bill. "I know that this has overwhelming bipartisan support, and we think it's the right thing to do, so that is our focus right now,'' he said.

Baldwin discussed the letter after the Seahawks' practice on Tuesday, saying the letter came about organically and is an important step in unifying the NFL community. "If you look at the players," he said, "we're utilizing the largest platform we have and so now, in a search for using the largest source of resources that we have, which is the NFL -- the NFL has a government affairs office that does a lot of work -- so being able to utilize that resource and make changes that we want to see obviously as players and the causes that we care about so passionately about, I thought that was a step in the right direction of us unifying the NFL community and going in the right direction toward progress."

Having Goodell co-sign the letter was also important, Baldwin said. "I think again the important aspect of it is us having a unified effort.  We don't want to be divided anymore. We don't want to continue with this divisive rhetoric, we don't want to engage with this divisive rhetoric.  We want to start showing our players, the NFL itself, the NFL community that we can be collectively united to seek the changes that we want to see, which are beneficial to the entirety of society.  So I thought it was important that we didn't do this as individuals but we did it as a collective group."

The full two-page letter is available at this link, and here is how it starts and ends:

We are writing to offer the National Football League's full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917).  We want to add our voice to the broad and bipartisan coalition of business leaders, law enforcement officials, veterans groups, civil rights organizations, conservative thought leaders, and faith-based organizations that have been working for five years to enact the changes called for in this comprehensive legislation....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would address many of the issues on which our players have worked to raise awareness of over the last two seasons. This bill seeks to improve public safety, increase rehabilitation, and strengthen families.  If enacted, it would be a positive next step in our collective efforts to move our nation forward.

Ultimately, we all share a responsibility to find a path towards unity, one that goes well beyond sports.  The National Football League applauds the introduction of this bipartisan criminal justice reform bill as well as your ongoing commitment to upholding America's promise of justice for all.  We stand ready to work with you to advance this important legislation.

October 17, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, October 16, 2017

NFL endorses federal criminal justice reform bills

I was not familiar with professional sports leagues playing a role in modern legislative debates, but this new Washington Post piece reports that the National Football League has "decided to endorse a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, eliminate “three-strike” provisions that require life sentences and give judges more latitude to reduce sentences for certain low-level crimes."  Here are the details:

The National Football League, still in political crosshairs over whether players should take a knee during the national anthem, is throwing its weight behind another cause in Washington’s debate over racial inequality: criminal justice reform.

The NFL’s spokesman said on Monday that the league has decided to endorse a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, eliminate “three-strike” provisions that require life sentences and give judges more latitude to reduce sentences for certain low-level crimes.

“We felt that this was an issue over the last months, as we have continued to work with our players on issues of equality and on issues of criminal justice reform, that was surfaced for us, and we thought it was appropriate to lend our support to it,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said Monday during a conference call with reporters.

The owners appear to be seeking middle ground between football players and their critics during a heated national debate over the growing phenomenon of players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.  It is not clear what effect the NFL’s effort will have on that debate — or on President Trump, who has fueled much of the vitriol against kneeling players through his personal and official Twitter accounts....

On Capitol Hill, spokesmen for the two main sponsors of the criminal justice bill, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), declined to comment about the timing of the NFL’s endorsement or whether it was intended to quell the heated debate over the players’ continued protests. Both said they welcomed the NFL’s support.

But a spokesman for Grassley added that the NFL had not coordinated with the bill’s congressional sponsors in advance of its decision.  In the meantime, no other sports league has signed on. A spokesman for the NFL Players Association did not immediately return a call for comment about whether the football players’ union would also endorse the bill.

In Congress, it is not clear whether the NFL’s endorsement will help the bill’s chances of passing.  The legislation has already earned the support of some influential groups from across the political spectrum, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Charles Koch Institute and Americans for Tax Reform.

In addition, the Grassley-Durbin bill is the result of a five-year, bipartisan effort. Last year, the duo released almost identical legislation backed by 37 co-sponsors, including 17 Republicans. Despite that, sponsors have struggled in years past to secure a full Senate vote for the bill, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refusing to bring it to the floor.

October 16, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Via Fox News, Senators Grassley, Durbin, Lee and Whitehouse start a renewed pitch for their Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

This new Fox News commentary, headlined "Bipartisan criminal justice reform is how Congress is supposed to work — the time is now to get it done," carries this notable byline: "Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse." And here is some of what these four Senators have to say:

In 2015, a diverse group of lawmakers set out to rethink our approach to federal prison sentences. Our goal: improve public safety and the rule of law by ensuring that penalties match their crime. Many months of thoughtful deliberation yielded a product that earned broad bipartisan support in Congress and from organizations around the country and across the political spectrum. And though the political winds in Washington have shifted, that broad support for comprehensive sentencing reform remains strong.

This week, we are reintroducing the “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” as we continue to build on the most sweeping criminal justice reform effort in a generation.

Crafted by Republican and Democratic leaders, this legislation aims to safely and sensibly reduce excessive sentences. It recalibrates prison sentences for certain drug offenders and gives judges greater sentencing flexibility while keeping stiff penalties in place for violent criminals. The bill preserves important law enforcement tools to take down large criminal organizations while expanding outlets to shield low-level nonviolent offenders from lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences. It eliminates mandatory life sentences for three-strike drug offenders and gives judges authority to retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.  The bill also includes “back end” reforms to curb recidivism by helping inmates successfully re-enter society.

We believe this is the right mix of reforms to give nonviolent offenders who’ve done significant time for their crime a second chance to rejoin their families and contribute to our communities while also reducing taxpayer costs and empowering law enforcement to keep dangerous criminals off our streets.  Our bipartisan work represents hard-fought consensus to a long-established problem. In recent years a unique and growing chorus of voices from across the political spectrum prompted a number of proposals in Congress to reform sentencing laws.  However, until now, none garnered enough support to move forward. It became clear that if we wanted to truly make progress on this issue, we would have to come together, check our differences at the door, and focus on areas where we could reach agreement....

We are encouraged by engagement from the White House on this comprehensive criminal justice reform effort. Last Congress, our bill was supported by hundreds of organizations from a variety of industries and political perspectives, including the NAACP and the Charles Koch Institute. It was also endorsed by a broad range of faith-based organizations and law enforcement leaders. We continue to welcome input from stakeholders and our colleagues in government and the law enforcement community as we make additional improvements. This bill represents the way Congress is supposed to work, and is well-positioned to be one of the most significant bipartisan achievements of the 115th Congress. It also represents an important step in our nation’s ongoing quest for justice.

Our founders declared that Americans have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Our criminal justice system needs to reflect these values. That means seeking justice for both the victim and the accused.  Our colleagues in Congress supporting these reforms may not always see eye to eye on every proposal, but we are committed to upholding America’s promise of justice for all.

UPDATE: I now see that the full text of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 — all 168 pages! — is available at this link.

October 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

It's Alive!!: Senators Grassley and Durbin talking about reintroducing federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Ae5cc-aliveRoughly two years ago, when Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley secured a 15-5 vote in committee to move forward the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (remember that?), I was for a brief period optimistic about the possibility of significant reform to the federal sentencing system.  Regular readers may recall my skepticism about the prospect of major statutory sentencing reform back in summer 2013 when some were eager to believe, in the words one commentator, that "momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable."  But once Senators Grassley got on board and shepherded the SRCA though the Senate Judiciary Committee, I really started to think big reform really could happen.  But, of course, a host of predictable and unpredictable forces stopped significant federal statutory sentencing from ever becoming an Obama era reality.

I provide this backstory because it should temper any significant excitement from this new news release from Senator Grassley headlined "Senators to Reintroduce Landmark Criminal Justice Reform Package."  Here are the basics (with my emphasis added):

The bipartisan authors of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act are preparing to reintroduce their comprehensive legislation to review prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars.  The legislation, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, improves judicial discretion at sentencing for low level offenders and helps inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools for law enforcement.  The senators plan to reintroduce the bill as they continue to work with stakeholders to make additional updates.

“Last Congress, we worked in a bipartisan manner to develop a proposal that empowers judges, saves taxpayer dollars and gives low-level, non-violent offenders another shot at rejoining the productive side of society. Since that time, we’ve been meeting with colleagues and stakeholders to improve the bill and grow support.  While the political landscape in Washington has changed, the same problems presented by the current sentencing regime remain, and we will continue to work with colleagues in Congress and the administration, as well as advocates and members of the law enforcement community, to find a comprehensive solution to ensure justice for both the victims and the accused, and support law enforcement in their mission to keep our communities safe,” Grassley said.

“This legislation is the product of more than five years of work on criminal justice reform,” said Durbin. “It’s also the best chance in a generation to right the wrongs of a badly broken system.  The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth.  Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. We believe this legislation would pass the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote — it’s time to get this done.

The fact that a new version of the SRCA has not yet been introduced, and that Senator Grassley is talking about working with stakeholders to improve the bill in light of the changed political landscape, has me thinking that some interesting moves my be afoot in an effort to get this bill finally to a floor vote. I think Senator Durbin is quite right that a thoughtful federal statutory sentencing reform bill will get a strong bipartisan vote if it gets to the floor. The big question is whether a new version of the SCRA can get to the Senator floor anytime soon.

September 20, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Senate Judiciary Chair Grassley still talking up the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform

This notable article from the Washington Free Beacon reports on some notable remarks by a critical member of Congress concerning federal sentencing reform.  The article is headlined "Sen. Grassley: Criminal Justice Reform Still on the Table," and here are excerpts:

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) believes that his criminal justice reform agenda, unsuccessful under the Obama administration, still has bright prospects, in spite of the less reform-friendly administration of President Donald Trump. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, spoke at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday morning about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), a bipartisan bill he first brought up in the last Congress....

"Long prison sentences always come with a cost. A cost to the taxpayers, a cost to families, and to our communities," Grassley said. "In many ways, and in many cases, the severity of the crime justifies these costs. But as we're all aware, that isn't always the case. Hence, the movement for sentencing reform."

The SRCA is meant to address these concerns through a number of approaches, Grassley said. These include expanded "safety valves" for non-violent offenders; a reduction in mandatory minimums for some drug crimes; and a reduction in sentences for offenders who complete programs designed to reduce recidivation. Grassley suggested that while the SRCA had the support of the Obama administration, the Trump White House, which has promised to "make America safe again," may be less friendly to the legislation.

"Obviously, the dynamic is different with a new president," Grassley said, but added that he was nonetheless "confident" about the SRCA's prospects. "We're looking forward to input from the administration" on the SRCA, Grassley said. "We had the support of the Obama administration. I think we have a chance of getting the support of this administration."

"I know that there is both support and opposition within this White House," Grassley said. "I certainly believe that it is consistent to be tough on crime and still support sentencing reform."

"We've been working since November to see what avenues we can have to move this bill along, particularly working with the executive branch of government. I'm confident about its prospects," he said....

Grassley criticized Sessions's comments that the administration would go back to pre-Obama sentencing discretion. "I'm not going to condemn people for finding fault with what Attorney General Sessions did when he spoke about going back to the pre-Obama, pre-Holder sentencing prosecutorial discretion that he gave to his U.S. Attorneys, that it was the wrong way to go. I could even say that I think it was the wrong way to go," he said.

Sessions opposed Grassley's bill when he was in the Senate. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Sessions "personally blocked" the 2015 SRCA; he also, along with several of his colleagues, authored one of a series of op-eds opposing the bill. Sessions wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post in June in which he insisted more stringent sentencing was needed to curb surging violent crime. He also attacked those who claimed incarceration was driven largely by low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Grassley, however, said Sessions' priorities need not conflict with the SRCA. "There doesn't have to be anything incompatible with what he's doing, with what we're trying to do, because what we do is give people that have been sentenced unfairly, and they feel it, and their lawyers feel it, another bite at the apple, by going before a judge to plead their case, that their sentence ought to be shorter," Grassley said.

Helpfully, the American Enterprise Institute has this webpage with a video of the event at which Senator Grassley spoke, and he had a lot more to say than what is quoted above.

June 23, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

White House adviser Jared Kushner and Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley meet on federal criminal justice reform

This new AP article reports that "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley met with White House adviser Jared Kushner about criminal justice reform Thursday, giving supporters a small sign of encouragement that the issue could be revived under President Donald Trump."  Here is more context (but not much of substance) about the meeting:

[A reform] bill died in the Senate last year over conservative opposition, and its future has seemed unclear under Trump.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, was a fierce opponent.  Former President Barack Obama was an enthusiastic backer of the effort, and supporters were skeptical that Trump would be as well, since he had dubbed himself "law-and-order candidate" and talked about a country in crisis, with terrorism in big cities and attacks on police.

Grassley, R-Iowa, confirmed the meeting with Kushner, Trump's adviser and son-in-law, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News, but would not comment on its substance.  The White House did not have immediate comment.  On whether the bill could be revived, Grassley said, "We're trying to reach some accommodation, if there needs to be any adjustment to the bill we had last year."

An unusual coalition — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Koch Industries — says the system is broken and supports changes.  Grassley and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, were sponsors of the bill.  House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has also been a strong supporter of the effort.

Advocates were encouraged by the meeting.  Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network said she is hopeful that lawmakers in Congress are paying attention to several successful state efforts to make similar changes.  And given the bipartisan support, she said, it's legislation that has a real chance of passing. "Congress needs to prove it can accomplish something, and this is the perfect issue," she said.

I am disinclined to call this one meeting a sign that federal statutory sentencing reform is in the works again, but it is an encouraging developments nonetheless for those eager to see Congress do some more reform work in this space.

March 30, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

GOP Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley says federal sentencing reform a priority after Trump nominations completed

This lengthy new Politico article, headlined in full "Senators plan to revive sentencing reform push: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley says he's not done yet pressing a cause with broad bipartisan support," brings some welcome new year good news for advocates of federal sentencing reform.  Here are the details, with a couple of lines emphasized for subsequent commentary:

Criminal justice reform — the great bipartisan hope of 2016 that ended in disappointment — may not be dead just yet. Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) plans to take up a bill to revamp U.S. sentencing laws and reform prisons soon after his panel clears the high-profile nominations from Donald Trump. A similar measure passed his committee overwhelmingly last year before stalling out in the face of opposition from law-and-order conservatives.

But Grassley told POLITICO he will soon try again. "The committee will begin the year working through the attorney general and Supreme Court nominees, but criminal justice reform will be one of the legislative bills I plan to bring up early on,” he said in a statement. “It cleared the committee with a broad bipartisan majority in the last Congress, and I don't expect that to change.”

The chief authors of the criminal justice overhaul, led by Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), will continue to try to drum up more support among senators, while “educating” the Trump administration about their bill’s merits, Grassley said.  The legislation isn’t expected to be substantially different than last year’s version.

Criminal justice reform could’ve been one of the bright, bipartisan spots in an otherwise contentious election year. But despite support from President Barack Obama, powerful congressional Republicans, and a sprawling network of groups from the left and right, the legislation never made it to the floor.  That was partly due to the determined efforts of law-and-order conservatives to steamroll it — and there's little to suggest that if the legislation heads to the Senate floor, that dynamic would change.

Nevertheless, Durbin approached Grassley after the election and pressed the chairman about whether the duo should make another run at it this year, Durbin recalled in a recent phone interview. Grassley was in. And once the chairman tees up the bill this year in his committee, its supporters expect a bipartisan vote similar to the 15-5 tally it received in October 2015.

Durbin and Grassley’s aides have been discussing a strategy to advance the bill in 2017. Aiding their cause is the fact that three opponents — GOP Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Perdue of Georgia — are leaving the committee this year, stirring hope that the vote count in favor of the measure could be higher. Vitter no longer serves in the Senate, Sessions is expected to be confirmed as attorney general and Perdue is shifting committees. Replacing them on the influential panel are Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Crapo of Idaho and John Kennedy of Louisiana. “I think the committee will be just as strong. It may be stronger,” Durbin said. “When you have people like Grassley and Durbin and [Senate Majority Whip John] Cornyn and [Sen. Patrick] Leahy for goodness sakes … it ought to be enough for us.”...

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is rarely eager to take up policy fights that divide his conference — and Democrats point a finger at him as a prime reason why criminal justice reform stalled last year. “The problem we ran into is Sen. McConnell, who didn’t want to call the bill to the floor. He was concerned about the impact on the election and also that the House wasn’t going to take it up,” Durbin said. The question remains going forward, he added, "whether McConnell will give us a chance.” McConnell aide Don Stewart responded that the majority leader spoke several times about the issue in 2016 and “doesn’t need Sen. Durbin to be his spokesman.”

The president-elect ran on a law-and-order platform, but Trump doesn't appear to have weighed in on the Senate measure during his campaign. Another wildcard factor is Sessions, Trump’s pick to become the attorney general.  As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was a fervent opponent of the sentencing overhaul and one of the five votes against it.

But Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another supporter of the criminal justice reform effort, speculated that once Sessions becomes the attorney general, his chief objective will be on enforcing what Congress sends him — even if he disagrees with it — rather than slipping into the role of legislator and try to change the laws. “He’s going to be focused on being the nation’s top law enforcement official,” Tillis said. “I don’t necessarily see him weighing in heavily on public policy choices that President Trump makes.”

Durbin said he intends to press Sessions on his views of criminal justice reform and how he’ll handle the issue at the Justice Department when the two meet privately to discuss about his bid to become attorney general on Wednesday.  Though Sessions had wanted to meet earlier, Durbin said Senate Democrats decided as a caucus to not meet with any Cabinet selections until the new year. “I want to know after all of the speeches he gave on the floor against criminal justice reform, what we can expect of him as attorney general,” Durbin said. “I don’t know what he’ll say.”

Still, others speculate that after Washington endures partisan wars over repealing Obamacare and confirming polarizing presidential nominees, Trump will be looking for a bipartisan win. Criminal justice reform could deliver one. “I know we have enough votes to send this to the president’s desk,” Tillis said. Stressing his desire to avoid legislative gridlock, Tillis added: “The election was not a Republican mandate. The election was a results mandate.”

This story is both encouraging and not all that surprising given the events of the last few years surrounding the proposal, debates and modifications of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The two lines I have emphasized reflect two coming developments that I think are crucial to this developing 2017 federal sentencing reform story:

1. I think it would be a policy mistake, despite the 2015 Judiciary Committee success of the SRCA, for that bill to serve the essential template for new Senate reform legislation. In my view, there are a host of ways a new and improved federal sentencing reform bill could and should be much more streamlined AND I think a new bill could and should garner even more bipartisan support if it also were to include some modest (or even aggressive) mens rea reforms.

2. I think Senators Sessions and Durbin are really critical players here, especially over the next few weeks, as Sessions develops and articulates his priorities as Attorney General and as Durbin seeks to explain why the horrific uptick in violent crime in his own Chicago (Which Prez-Elect Trump has been tweeting about) should not be a reason to tap the brakes on any further federal sentencing reforms.

January 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 16, 2016

GOP Congressman Sensenbrenner explains why federal criminal justice reform is necessary to fix a "broken system" which is "fiscally unsustainable" and "morally irresponsible"

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner has a long and dynamic history working on federal criminal justice issues, and not that long ago he was an ardent supporter of many mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  But more recently, Rep Sensenbrenner has become a potent voice calling for federal reforms, and his latest pitch on that front appear in this new commentary headlined "Criminal Justice Reform Bills Are On The Table In Congress. Now It Needs To Pass Them."  Here are excerpts from this piece:

In 2013, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) created the Over-criminalization Task Force which examined the depth, seriousness, and complexities of the problems facing our federal criminal justice system. The findings that came from the task force allowed Members on the Committee to identify key problem areas and begin the reform process.  Last year, momentum for criminal justice reform reached an all-time high. It united a wide range of law enforcement and political organizations, advocacy groups, and Congressional leaders under a common goal: to fix our broken system....

Although a large number the nation’s 2.3 million inmates deserve their place behind bars, too many low-level, non-violent individuals are caught up in broken system.  Their incarceration diverts limited resources away from other priorities, such as policing and the capture and punishment of violent and career criminals.  For too long, the pressing need for criminal justice reform has been put on the backburner.  It has led to increasing financial burdens on taxpayers, violent outbursts in economically depressed neighborhoods throughout the nation, and the breakdown of hundreds of thousands of American families.

Fifty percent of the current prison population suffers from substance abuse problems, mental health issues, or a combination of both.  Our criminal justice system is not equipped to provide these individuals with the help they need to gain control of their lives and acquire the critical work skills necessary to successfully re-enter society and the workforce.  Without these basic tools, the likelihood of recidivism is high....

Each piece of legislation currently on the table addresses specific problems in the current system and offers common sense, fiscally responsible solutions that will increase public safety, support law enforcement and victims of crime, and decrease the overwhelming financial burden on hardworking taxpayers.  However, none of it matters unless Congress is willing to pass legislation and President Obama is ready to sign it.

At the heart of federal criminal justice reform is the desire to create a better way forward for every American struggling under our broken system.  Families ripped apart by incarceration, communities divided by a seemingly impenetrable wall between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they protect, and an ineffective justice system not only weakens the fabric of society, but hinders economic growth and opportunity for all Americans.

Three years ago, Congress began a journey to rectify the injustices in our federal criminal justice system.  Right now, we have the opportunity to finish the job and pass meaningful and effective reform legislation. Our system cannot continue on its current trajectory.  It’s not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible.  We must do better and we can do better.

 Prior recent posts regarding some federal CJ work and statements by Rep Sensenbrenner:

September 16, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

NAAUSA sends letter to House members explaining its opposition of federal statutory sentencing reforms

As detailed via some prior posts linked below, the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys (NAAUSA) has been one of the most consistent and vocal opponents of federal statutory sentencing reforms that have been considered in Congress in recent years.  And this group has now just posted here via its website a lengthy letter authored by Steven Cook, NAAUSA's President, addressed to members of the US House of Representatives. Here is how the letter begins, its major headings, and its concluding paragraph:

As the voice of career federal prosecutors across the country, we write to make clear our strong and unequivocal opposition to the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, H.R. 3713. This legislation, and other bills being advanced under the euphemistic label of criminal justice and prison or sentencing “reform,” will seriously undermine our ability to disrupt and dismantle violent gangs, domestic and international drug trafficking organizations, weaken federal firearm laws, and release thousands of violent convicted felons from federal prison. To explain our concern, we would like to make three points.

1. The federal criminal justice system is not broken. ...

2. Over the last decade the federal criminal justice system has been weakened or “reformed” in significant ways, discounting the need for any further reform. ...

3. The historic reduction in violent crime rates has begun to reverse course and in many cities across the country violent crime is skyrocketing. At the same time, we are suffering from the worst opioid epidemic in the history of our Nation. Now is the wrong time to remove or further weaken the very tools that federal prosecutors and law enforcement officers need to stem the tide of rising crime and prosecute domestic and international drug traffickers, violent gangs, and other violent offenders. ...

In conclusion, the federal criminal justice system has been significantly weakened over the last decade, the federal prison population continues to drop, homicide and violent crime rates are spiraling up across the country, and we are in the grip of the worst heroin and opioid epidemic in the history of our Nation. Now is the wrong time to remove or weaken the last tools available to federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents to combat these problems.

Some prior related posts highlighting some NAAUSA advocacy:

September 11, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 08, 2016

Broad perspectives on the narrowness of recent federal clemency and sentencing reform efforts

Two of my favorite lawprof colleagues, Erik Luna and Mark Olser, remind me why they are among my favorites through this new Cato commentary titled "Mercy in the Age of Mandatory Minimums." Here are excertps:

Recently, we stood in a backyard eating barbecue with a man named Weldon Angelos.  He was only a few weeks out of federal prison, having been freed some four decades early from a 55-year sentence for selling a small amount of marijuana while possessing firearms.  Weldon was not among the 562 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama, including Wednesday’s historic grant of commutation for 214 nonviolent prisoners. Instead, Weldon’s release was made possible through a negotiated motion by the government that, alas, cannot be replicated in other cases.

For a dozen years, Weldon had been the poster boy of criminal justice reform for liberals and conservatives alike. His liberation is cause for celebration for those who believed the punishment did not fit the crime.  Nonetheless, the Angelos case remains a cautionary tale about both the inherent ruthlessness of “mandatory minimum” terms of imprisonment and the ineffectiveness of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative.

Mandatory minimum laws bar the consideration of facts upon which a sentencing judge would normally rely.  In Weldon’s case, the law compelled a 55-year sentence.  It didn’t matter that Weldon was a first-time offender with no adult record or that he was the father of three young children.  Nor did it matter that he never brandished or used the firearms and never caused or threatened any violence or injury....

Most of all, it did not matter that the sentencing judge — a conservative Bush appointee known for being tough on crime — believed that the punishment was “unjust, cruel, and irrational.”  Ultimately, the judge was bound not only by the mandatory minimum statute but also the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, which largely acquiesces to prosecutors’ charging decisions while providing almost no check on excessive prison terms.

Absent a doctrinal reversal by the Supreme Court (don’t hold your breath), any meaningful safeguard against misapplication of mandatory minimums will have to come in the form of legislation from Congress or from the president through the application of the clemency power.  As for the former, lawmakers are considering several [reform] bills... [that] are entirely laudable, but they are also quite modest.  Indeed, the Senate bill passed in April expands some mandatory minimum provisions and adds a couple of new ones to the federal code....

The positive aspects of the reform bills should be supported all the same.  Sadly, legislative efforts appear to be mired in an intramural fight among Republicans, as well as hindered by Democratic intransigence toward another worthy reform, namely, a requirement that law enforcement prove a culpable mental state rather than holding defendants strictly liable.  Until lawmakers can agree on a means to prevent draconian sentences, clemency will remain the only remedy for such miscarriages of justice.

Unfortunately, the federal clemency system is also dysfunctional.  Weldon’s petition for clemency was filed in November 2012 — and it then sat, unresolved one way or another, for three-and-a-half years.  The support for the petition was unprecedented, spanning activists, academics and experts from every political camp imaginable.  While Weldon is not wealthy and could not afford high-priced lobbyists or attorneys, the facts of his case drove the story onto the pages of leading news outlets.  Yet nothing happened.  Even when the Obama administration launched the “Clemency Project 2014” and Weldon’s case was accepted into that program, he languished in prison as the petition slogged through the seven vertical levels of review any successful clemency case must navigate.

Clemency is meant for cases like Weldon’s, where the requirements of the law exceed the imperatives of justice.  The fact that a case like his cannot receive clemency from an administration dedicated to expanding the use of this presidential prerogative lays bare the root problem we face — too much process and bureaucracy coursing through a Department of Justice that bears a built-in conflict of interest....

It was thrilling to see Weldon free, eating off of a paper plate in the light of a Utah evening.  He is just one of many, though, and systemic reform of both mandatory minimums and the clemency process should be an imperative for this and the next administration.

August 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Should we all share Senator Grassley's optimism about federal statutory sentencing reform's prospects?

Long time readers know my hopefulness about significant federal sentencing reform moving through the current Congress has waxed and waned, especially as key leaders and members of both houses of Congress have expressed more or less optimism about the prospects for draft legislation getting full votes.  And, as this post a few weeks ago revealed, I have lately been gespecially pessimistic about the prospects for Congress to summon the spirit or find the time to get any reform bill to President Obama's desk.

But this new local article from Iowa, headlined "U.S. Sens. Grassley, Scott optimistic on sentencing reform," prompts me to become a bit more hopeful again. Here are excerpts:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, joined by a fellow Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, is expressing optimism about the prospects for passing federal criminal sentencing reform legislation.

The senior Iowa senator spoke at a news conference Wednesday at the Des Moines International Airport with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor last week in which he described being targeted by police because of he is black.  Scott was stopped by law enforcement seven times in one year while he was an elected official, sometimes for speeding, but other times simply because he was driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or other insignificant reasons, he said.

Scott saluted Grassley's work Wednesday on justice reform issues, saying the proposed legislation has attracted a broad coalition from the far left to the far right.  "This is an unusual time when we seem to have the stars aligning," he added. He described the legislation as serving the best interests of communities as well as individuals.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is authored by Grassley and co-authored by Scott.  The package would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and would expand prison programs intended to reduce the likelihood that inmates will re-offend.  It would also reduce sentences for inmates who successfully complete those programs. In addition, the bill would make changes to the federal justice system, such as allowing people convicted of certain crimes as juveniles to expunge their criminal records if they turn their lives around.

The bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Grassley, and is awaiting action by the full Senate.  Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has announced the House will consider several separate pieces of legislation to address criminal justice reform.  Grassley said the House proposals include addressing such issues as asset forfeiture, but he expressed confidence any differences can be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee.

Grassley said the legislation responds to Iowans who have expressed concerns about a rising federal prison population, costs of housing them and the possibility that some people with relatively minor criminal backgrounds are receiving lengthy sentences intended for hardcore criminals.  "Successfully addressing the different perspectives has not been an easy task, especially if we want to ensure that career criminals and the most violent offenders are not allowed to wreak havoc once again in their communities," Grassley said.  "The work that we started more than a year ago has been a thoughtful, bipartisan deliberation that will promote opportunities to reduce recidivism while protecting our communities from violent career criminals."

My prior post expressed fear that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was essentially dead in Congress, but I am certain Senator Grassley knows a lot more than I do about whether it may still have some legislative life left in it. I sure hope so.

July 21, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, July 01, 2016

With SRCA now "officially" dead ... send your "thanks" to (failings of) Prez Obama and bipartisan bungling

This Real Clear Politics article, headlined "Hopes Fade for Criminal Justice Reform This Year," serves essentially as an obituary for the effort to get significant statutory federal sentencing reform done before the end of the Obama Administration. Unsuprisingly, Bill Otis is dancing on the grave of these efforts via this post at Crime & Consequences titled simple "Victory." And Scott Shackford at Reason.com has this helpful post mortem titled "Federal Criminal Justice Reform May Fail, and Everybody’s Blaming Everybody Else," highlighting all the finger-pointing now taking place:

The Sentencing and Reform Act modestly updates federal mandatory minimum sentences to make them less brutal in non-violent drug cases and allows federal judges to invoke "safety valve" exceptions to sentence less than the mandatory minimum in certain cases. Probably the most important component of the law is that it would make the Fair Sentencing Act, which lowered the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine-related crimes to those of powder cocaine, retroactive. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) this could help somewhere around 5,800 people currently serving sentences in federal prison. You can read FAMM's analysis of what's good and bad about the current incarnation of the Sentencing and Reform Act here.

 So thousands of prisoners could be stuck serving outdated sentences for cocaine crimes that no longer even apply if this law is not passed. In response to frustration that the bill isn't going anywhere there's a chain of blaming that weaves throughout RealClearPoltics' report:

  • Grassley merely says he's "disappointed" because he worked hard to get more Republicans on board supporting the law.

  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who wrote the bill, blames Republicans, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for offering him "little to no hope" that the legislation would move forward. (He is undoubtedly also referring to conservatives like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.)

  • Sen. John Corbyn (R-Texas) blames the House of Representatives for not moving more quickly, which he said would have created "momentum" in the Senate for passing the law.

  • Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) says the refusal to add reform to mens rea is holding back the legislation. "Mens rea" is the legal concept that convicting a person of a crime should require proving that they had criminal intent to do so. Not all federal laws have this mens rea requirement, and some Republicans want to add it. This has angered some Democrats and the Department of Justice because they believe it would make it harder to convict people (or more accurately, to force settlements) in white-collar criminal cases or cases of corporate misconduct.

  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) blames the Koch brothers for helping push the mens rea reform, calling it a "fatal poison pill." Cornyn, however, pointed out that the current Senate bill does not even contain this reform. There are concerns that it will be attached later on.

As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the main individual who should be blamed here is President Barack Obama, although lots of other blame can and should be spread around to all the folks who failed to fully appreciate that a series of small "smart on crime" bills would have been far superior and far more likely to become law than the mega-reform bill that was too complicated with too many controversial parts to make passage ever likely.

I will now likely use the long weekend (which I am about to start by going off-line for a while) to reflect on the current federal sentencing reform "big picture" circa mid-2016. I also think this news provides an approrpriate opportunity to begin a series of commentary posts about criminal justice reform during the Obama era, which I will be calling "Missed Opportunities: The Failure of Prez Obama to bring real Hope and Change to Federal Sentencing." Stay tuned.

July 1, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)