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 (3)

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)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Notable new commentary at The Federalist talks through conservative support and opposition to federl statutory sentencing reform

Rachel Lu, a senior contributor at The Federalist, has this interesting new commentary under this lengthy headline: "We Need Sentencing Reform And This Bill Is A Good Start: The past two decades have seen ramped-up sentences for drug criminals, which have cost us billions in taxpayer money, while yielding few benefits. Let’s take this opportunity to do better." The piece usefully goes beyond the usual superficial advocacy for federal sentencing reform and digs into the debate within conservative circles about whether to support or oppose the SRCA. I recommend the piece in full, and here excerpts (with links from the original):

What’s really going on with the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act? This bipartisan legislation has been in the news lately, prompting a strange and confusing exchange between conservatives who support justice reform (notably Vikrant Reddy and myself) and critics of the movement (Sean Kennedy and Jeffrey Anderson)....

Donald Trump has been comparatively quiet thus far on the crime issue. That may reflect the fact that some of his likely vice presidential candidates (most notably Newt Gingrich and Nathan Deal) have already established themselves in the pro-reform camp. Nevertheless, this initiative could still fall prey to the dreary realities of partisan base-beating. That would be sad to see, especially since justice reform is almost the only bipartisan issue we’ve got left in these bitter times.

Of course, for some that is itself a strong motive to kill the bill. They hardly even pretend to know or care about the content of the legislation itself.  Consider Jeffrey H. Anderson’s “What, are we the sort of people who work with Democrats?” rebuttal to my last essay for an example of this thinking....

[P]risons are beneficial primarily insofar as they keep dangerous people off the streets. That’s a huge benefit with respect to murderous psychopaths. Yet if we’re talking about minor, subsidiary figures in the drug trade, we should recognize they are easily replaced. Hitting small-time distributors or smugglers with decades-long sentences will not solve our drug problem.

Even recognizing those principles, it’s always best to be cautious about public safety. The Sentencing and Corrections Act is cautious. We certainly won’t be seeing the immediate release of thousands of drug criminals. Rather, the bill takes modest steps to soften some of the more drastic measures in federal drug laws.  Sean Kennedy’s recent missive cautioned against “rushing” conservative justice reform, but looking at the bill currently in front of us, I’m truly at a loss to imagine what might satisfy him if this does not....

If you’re unsure whom to trust in the justice-reform debate, consider this. Reform-minded conservatives have ideas, an agenda, and recent legislative accomplishments to their names. They’ve been elbow-deep in the relevant policy issues for many years now. By contrast, their critics can’t even seem to agree on the most fundamental point: is over-incarceration is actually a problem in America?

In many ways it’s unsurprising that this would be a fuzzy point for critics. Mass incarceration was the rock against which tough-on-crime finally foundered. For decades, conservatives called for tough, consistent sanctions as a response to rising crime and disorder. This approach did yield some benefits: crime fell through the ’80s and ’90s.

As prison populations exploded, however, the price tag likewise grew steeper, and the social effects of imprisoning about 1 percent of our population became ever harder to ignore. Crowded prisons are bad for any number of reasons. They’re miserable and unsafe (for guards as well as inmates), and they do a poor job of rehabilitating offenders.

Eventually, it became clear to policy-savvy conservatives that they needed a more multifaceted approach to crime control. Red states have been leading the way for years now in using data-driven methods to reduce incarceration without sacrificing public safety. Many of the same people and organizations have helped to craft and promote federal sentencing reform, eventually giving rise to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

As policy, it’s been an impressive effort. Politically, it requires a paradigm shift that some haven’t yet made. As the data pile up indicating that prudent reform is possible, William Otis has gone on defending large-scale incarceration, regularly repeating his maxim that a nation is judged not by its incarceration rate, but by its crime rate. That no-limit position is too drastic for most, so we see figures like Kennedy and Anderson taking softer but more confusing stances, vacillating between tough-on-crime rhetoric and vague complaints that the legislation in front of us is too quick, too drastic or too bipartisan.

Kennedy warns us, in the spirit of Otis’ critique, that the real problem with our society is the number of criminals, not the number of inmates. Then he goes on to imply that state-level justice reform has been healthy but that the federal bill somehow goes too far. (How? Why? What provisions would he change?)

Anderson implies that federal sentencing reform represents an irresponsible lapse of conservative principles, but then later concedes that some reform may be good, on the condition that we scrap the present bill and replace it with exclusively Republican-authored legislation. (Why would we do that when reform-interested conservatives have been involved in writing and promoting this bill?)

It’s hard to have a serious debate when critics are bringing so little to the table.  Through promoting successful state-level reforms, conservative justice reformers have demonstrated that they are prudent, cautious, and highly attentive to data.  Unless critics can offer something more substantive than dated political platitudes, we should trust that this statute is moving us a step in the right direction.

June 13, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

GOP Rep Labrador predicts "we’re going to see some of the greatest reforms in a generation" emerging from Congress

Raul-LabradorSomeone should be collecting all the big talk we have heard from elected officials and pundits about the ground-breaking criminal justice reforms that are purportedly soon to happen in Congress (and, so far, just never quite seem to happen).  As noted in this prior post, at least one notable commentatory was saying in summer 2013 that "momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable."  Three years later, as reported in this local article discussing comments at a sentencing reform symposium, one notable member of Congress is still talking about momentum continuing to build:

Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador says momentum is building in Congress for major criminal justice reforms aimed at reversing decades of focus on long prison terms that hit even nonviolent and first-time offenders. “I believe that we’re going to see some of the greatest reforms in a generation,” Labrador told a criminal justice reform conference at Concordia University School of Law in Boise on Monday. “Momentum is building for reform. This Congress alone, I’ve already met with President Obama twice. … This is actually one area that I think I can work with the president.”

Labrador, a Republican and tea party favorite, last year co-sponsored major, bipartisan reform legislation, but it didn’t advance. This year, a less ambitious bill is pending in both houses that includes some of the same provisions, including giving judges more discretion on whether to impose mandatory minimum sentences. “We only have 5 percent of the world’s population in the United States, and the U.S. is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” Labrador said. “We should not be proud of that.”

That bill and several others have cleared the House Judiciary Committee, Labrador said, “and House Speaker Paul Ryan has expressed his support for the movement and has promised me to bring a reform package to the floor for a vote this year.”

It hasn’t happened yet, and Labrador acknowledged that hopes are fading as more of the year passes by. “It’s a little bit watered down,” he said. “They had to look at the political reality, what can pass in the Senate and the House.”

Still, he pledged to continue to push the issue, one that Labrador, an immigration and criminal defense attorney, said he started work on as soon as he arrived in Congress.

Here are some more quotes of note that emerged from this Concordia University School of Law sentencing conference:

“Eighty percent of federal drug prisoners have no history of violence, and more than 25 percent have no criminal history at all,” said Alex Kreit, professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and an expert and textbook author on controlled substances and marijuana regulation. “This, in a nutshell, is what is driving interest in federal drug sentencing reform.” Half of the federal prison population consists of drug offenders, Kreit said, though they comprise only a quarter of those admitted each year. “Part of that is the lengthy drug sentences that we have.”

Though some reforms have happened, notably congressional action in 2010 to reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine sentences, federal drug sentencing laws remain largely unchanged. “I think there are a lot of people coalescing around the idea that what we have been doing hasn’t worked in the way we wanted it to work, said Wendy Olson, U.S. Attorney for Idaho. “I think all of us in criminal justice have an obligation to look at that.”

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said his 28 years on the bench have shown him that the war on drugs has been “an abysmal failure – we certainly have not reduced drug consumption. Whatever has happened, it has not been worth the price that we have paid.”

He said its casualties have largely been low-level drug offenders who were associated with large quantities of drugs – couriers, truck drivers, addicts hired to unload trucks. “Kingpins are almost immune, in the same way that generals and commanders in chief are typically immune during wars,” Winmill said, “and if they are brought down, what happens is that they’re immediately replaced.”

Plus, though African-Americans and Hispanics use drugs at about the same rate as the general population, Winmill said, “The incarceration rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is off the charts. Now, is that implicit bias? Is it overt bias? Is it a result of a policy from Congress that reflects bias? I don’t know. But I think it certainly is something we need to think long and hard about.”

June 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 02, 2016

FreedomWorks explains why GOP opposition to federal sentencing reform is "unreasonable"

Writing at FreedomWorks, Jason Pye has this lengthy posting headlined "The Unreasonable Opposition to Justice Reform in the Senate," which gets started this way (with links in the original):

Recently, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) gave a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, in which he offered his case against the justice reform effort in Congress led by conservatives like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).  Apparently unaware of the efforts of more than 30 states, including several traditionally Republican states, Cotton ridiculously labeled the federal push as "criminal leniency."

FreedomWorks has already responded to some of Cotton's hyperbolic statements on justice reform. Unfortunately, even after proposed legislation was improved to address the concerns of a handful of senators, Cotton doubled down on his opposition in his speech. Some of the more egregious comments from his speech are in italics below, immediately followed by a response to set the record straight.

"These policies are not merely wrong. They are dangerous. They threaten a return to the worst days of the 1990s, when law-abiding citizens lived in fear of their lives. Indeed, we may be living through the leading edge of a new crime wave. Over the last two years, murders across 56 of our largest cities are up 17 percent. The numbers are even more shocking in some cities. In Chicago, murders jumped 70 percent in the first quarter of this year alone. In Las Vegas, 81 percent. In Long Beach, 125 percent."

These are deceptive words, to say the least. As Cotton mentioned, crime rates have declined significantly since the early 1990s. Pew Research found that gun-related homicides, including suicides, declined by 31 percent between 1993 and 2014. Excluding suicides, the figure is closer to 49 percent. Over the same period, the nonfatal firearm crime victimization rate declined by nearly 75 percent. A separate report released in 2013 noted that the public was largely unaware that violent crime was on the decline.

There has been much made of a "new crime wave," but it is difficult for anyone to make such a statement based on a short-term look at the data. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) publishes annual reports on crime data that offers more context and insight, rather than anecdote. Even in the midst of the decline in crime rates, the United States experienced two consecutive years in which homicide rates increased, 2005 and 2006. In 2007, the homicide rate began to decline again.

According to the last two full-year reports, crime continued to decline, almost across the board. In 2013, crime, including homicides and other violent crime, was down. The downward trend continued in 2014. The FBI hasn't released data for all of 2015; the report is not due for a few more months. The Brennan Center released a preliminary analysis of crime rates in 2015 and found that the "new crime wave," as Cotton puts it, does not exist. But even if the overall crime rate increased, it does not mean that there is some new crime wave. Again, 2005 and 2006 proved to be outliers, and 2015, if the crime rate does rise, may be just that.

June 2, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Making the case for "Why Latinos Should Invest in Sentencing Reform"

Three notable advocates recently penned this notable Huffington Post commentary that has as its headline the quoted portion of this post's title. Here is how the piece starts and ends:

Partisan gridlock has halted many important policies from becoming realities. One of the promising policies, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, is currently stalled in the Senate. If enacted, the legislation will have a colossal effect on Latinxs. Once incarcerated, Latinxs face limited economic opportunity, family trauma, turmoil, and deportation — consequences that do not in any way reflect reasonable punishment for the often minor infractions that occur.

Rita Becerra is one of those Latinxs. Rita, who was a single mother of two children and a new grandmother in 1994, was arrested and sentenced to 27 years behind bars for drug charges stemming from her live-in boyfriend’s involvement in the drug trade. Prior to that, Rita had never even had a traffic ticket. Although Rita had never touched any drugs or delivered them, she was charged with conspiracy with intent to distribute. Rita’s boyfriend was able to reduce his sentence to 9 years because he provided details about criminal activities to the prosecution. Yet, Rita could not plea bargain because the only information she knew of concerned her boyfriend’s illegal enterprises and the prosecution already had that knowledge.

This dilemma, where those most involved with a crime possess the lion’s share of information and can bargain for time off while those who may have little involvement — and thus little knowledge of crimes — receive a full sentence, is a frustratingly common occurrence. Rita’s story is as tragic and unjust as it is commonplace. Women are the fastest growing group of prisoners, boasting an incarceration rate almost double that of men leaving more than one million women behind bars.

Another alarming trend is that Latinxs are unjustly targeted because of policies and practices that perpetuate their involvement in the criminal legal system and immigration system. Consequently, Latinxs are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites and are over-represented in state prisons in 31 of the 50 U.S. states. They are also overrepresented in the federal system, where Latinxs—who are 17.4 percent of the U.S. population—make up 33.8 percent of the incarcerated population in federal prisons. Indeed, today, 1 in every 6 Latino men and 1 in every 45 Latina women can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. As a result, 1 in 28 Latinx children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent compared to 1 in 57 white children. Research shows that children who grow up with an incarcerated parent are more likely to go to prison themselves, in addition to suffering from a host of long-term effects and disabilities like attention deficits, mental illness, and physical health issues such as obesity, trauma, depression, and anxiety....

Make no mistake: criminal justice reform is a Latinx issue. But more importantly, it is a human rights issue of epic proportions that touches the lives of many people just like Rita. It demands our immediate attention and Congress’ immediate action.

May 30, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Suggesting we suffer from "under-incarceration," Senator Cotton calls federal sentencing reform "dead in this year’s Congress"

As reported in this Politico article, headlined "Sen. Tom Cotton: U.S. has 'under-incarceration problem'," at least one significant opponent of federal sentencing reform is already claiming victory in his efforts to preclude any legislative changes this year to any severe federal statutory mandatory minimums.  Here are the basics via Politico:

Sen. Tom Cotton on Thursday slammed his colleagues' efforts to pass sweeping criminal justice reforms, saying the United States is actually suffering from an "under-incarceration problem."

Cotton, who has been an outspoken critic of the bill in Congress that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences, smacked down what he called "baseless" arguments that there are too many offenders locked up for relatively small crimes, that incarceration is too costly, or that "we should show more empathy toward those caught up in the criminal-justice system."

"Take a look at the facts. First, the claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact: for the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed," Cotton said during a speech at The Hudson Institute, according to his prepared remarks. "Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem."

Expanding upon his remarks during a question-and-answer session, Cotton said releasing felons under reduced sentences serves only to destabilize the communities in which they are released.  “I saw this in Baghdad. We’ve seen it again in Afghanistan," recalled Cotton, who served in the Army during both wars.  "Security has to come first, whether you’re in a war zone or whether you’re in the United States of America.”  Those advocating for criminal justice reform through such measures appear to have forgotten the high-crime days of the 1980s, Cotton remarked, noting that the federal prison population is declining....

"I believe the criminal-leniency bill in the Senate is dead in this year’s Congress. And it should remain so if future versions allow for the release of violent felons from prison," he went on to say. "I will, though, happily work with my colleagues on true criminal-justice reform — to ensure prisons aren’t anarchic jungles that endanger both inmates and corrections officers, to promote rehabilitation and reintegration for those who seek it, and to stop the over-criminalization of private conduct under federal law.  But I will continue to oppose any effort to give leniency to dangerous felons who prey on our communities."

Based on these comments from Senator Cotton (which can be read/seen via this link), I am now growing ever more inclined to agree with Senator Cotton's suggestion that a significant sentencing reform bill will not get through Congress before the 2016 election. Despite efforts to tweak the SRCA to appease some conservative critics, the most vocal opponents of the bill, Senators Cotton and Session, remain vocal in their opposition. In addition, as reported here, Senator Marco Rubio has recently expressed opposition to the SRCA. Perhaps most critically, I have yet to see anyone make a truly forceful political argument that any of the most critical current GOP leaders (namely Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan) ought to see great political benefits from now starting to aggressively champion federal statutory sentencing reform efforts.

That all said, I think some of the political calculations here remain fluid. It seems to me possible (though not likely) that the White House and/or leading Democrats might relent on opposition to mens rea reform, which could perhaps jump-start the stalled reform bills in the House of Representatives. Or maybe the even unpredictable Donald Trump will see some poll numbers suggesting he could improve his image with younger and minority voters by claiming he is better than the Clintons on criminal justice reform. And, not to be completely overlooked, it seems to me quite possible that lots of folks uncertain about the current national political mood on crime and punishment would feel comfortable moving forward on reforms during the lame duck period after the Nov 2016 elections.

All those speculations aside, I view Senator Cotton's latest comments as still further confirmation of my own long-standing fear that it continues to be much easier for all sorts of federal political actors to talk a lot about sentencing reform than to actually convert all the sentencing buzzing into actual federal statutory reforms. 

A few 2016 related posts:

May 20, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

New CBO report indicates federal statutory sentencing reform would save many, many millions

This new Reuters article, headlined "Congress forecasters see major savings from sentencing reforms," reports on this new report from the Congressional Budget Office providing a "Cost Estimate" on S. 2123, the proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Here are the basics via the Reuters report:

A criminal justice bill awaiting a vote by the U.S. Senate would reduce federal prison costs by $722 million over the next 10 years by releasing thousands of federal prisoners early, congressional forecasters said on Wednesday.

Federal benefits received by the newly released prisoners would increase direct spending by $251 million and reduce revenues by $8 million over the same period, according to the estimate by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

The new savings estimate buoyed supporters of the bipartisan measure to lower mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent federal drug offenders, which is central to President Barack Obama's efforts to overhaul the country's federal criminal justice system and reduce prison overcrowding.

"We have an obligation to change the way we think about incarceration, and today’s CBO report shows that we have a fiscal obligation as well," said the bill's co-authors, U.S. senators Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, and Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, in a statement.

The bill was revised last month to exclude prisoners convicted of violent crimes in an effort to garner more support among conservatives.

May 18, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An effective accounting of why "Sentencing Reform is Seriously Stuck"

The quoted portion of the title of this post is from the headline of this effective new Roll Call commentary authored by David Hawkings, and it carries this astute subheadline "Presidential politics, poison pills and attack ads threaten hopes for bipartisan accord." Here are excerpts:

For more than 18 months, a rewrite of laws governing federal criminal punishments has been touted as the exception that was going to prove the rule: An effort that had so galvanized both conservatives and liberals that it would become one of the few memorable policy achievements of the current Congress.  Well, the rule has held true about the deadlocked-by-polarization Capitol becoming only more so in the sessions before a presidential election. But the exception, by fits and starts, is growing ever less likely to be exceptional.

“Sentencing reform,” as it’s known on the Hill, is seriously stuck.  On the surface, it may not appear that way.  Just offstage, there’s a fundamental impasse that looks as if it can only be broken if one sitde caves in, thereby imperiling the highly unusual bipartisan coalition that has been the issue’s signature feature.

Complicating matters further, there are solid presidential and congressional campaign rationales for a deal, but also political arguments in opposition being at least as forcefully expressed. All this is on clearest display in the Senate, where the legislation looks to be riding a little wave of momentum but may be close to publicly coming off the rails – buffeted by anxieties about Willie Horton on the right and anger at Wall Street greed on the left....

[T]here’s a decent chance the [latest revised sentencing reform] bill will come to the floor this summer, assuming the appropriations process inevitably seizes up and there no longer is the need to devote the Senate’s time to spending bills.

Along the way, the measure is going to face one assault from powerful Republicans determined to kill it outright, and another from Republicans willing to love it to death. Ted Cruz of Texas, who returned to the Capitol this week vowing to press ahead with the combative outsider tone of his presidential campaign, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse de facto GOP nominee Donald Trump, are leading the lambasting of the bill as going way too soft on crime.

A floor debate would give Cruz an opportunity to put his scorched-earth style for opposing legislation back on C-SPAN display.  And though Trump has not taken an explicit position on the bill, his many authoritarian statements suggest he’ll take Sessions’ advice and come out emphatically against it – especially if his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, who’s become newly critical of “mass incarceration,” decides to endorse the bill. So it’s quite easy to envision law-and-order groups producing 30-second TV spots, evocative of the legendary Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, chiding even the GOP backers of the bill as pro-drug-dealer criminal justice weaklings.

The other big obstacle, which might prove even more problematic, goes by the much nerdier label, mens rea.  That Latin phrase, which translates as “guilty mind,” is law school shorthand for the way prosecutors are sometimes required to prove a defendant’s criminal intent in order to obtain a conviction. Under federal law, many categories of behavior are crimes only when the accused know what they’re doing is wrong and do it anyway – but some actions can bring convictions and imprisonment whether or not there’s any willful criminal intent.

Many influential Republicans, urged on by their business allies and such conservative fundraising forces as the Koch brothers, are eager to apply a blanket mens rea requirement across the federal criminal code.  They say the government has too much power to convict companies and their executives without having to prove any criminal intent. And they are eyeing the sentencing overhaul bill as their best available vehicle for getting the job done.

Lawmakers and activists from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party deride this proposal as a thinly veiled effort to deliver a permission slip for more “What, me worry?” sketchy behavior to the same sort of bad actors in the corporate and investment worlds who melted down the economy eight years ago.  These liberal forces, too, have the ability to produce punchy campaign commercials targeting those in Congress who go along.

Even if the bill gets through the Senate without having to swallow the mens rea poison pill, top Republicans in the House are insisting that sentencing legislation will only move if it’s lashed together with their efforts to expand the need to prove criminal intent. The Obama administration argues the opposite, that the only way to sign a bill on sentencing this year is to negotiate protections for unwitting white collar criminals on a separate track.

One again this campaign season, it’s the small clusters of combative voices at the edges that are likely to have more power than any collaborative majority in the middle.

Not only does this piece effectively detail all the ways in which and reasons when the revised SRCA might not make it through the legislative process over the next six month, it also hints at an intriguing and perhaps disconcerting reality that for me has now emerged: GOP Prez front-running Donald Trump is now perhaps the political power-player with the greatest opportunity to "unstick" the SRCA.

If GOP Prez candidate Trump were to make nice to certain key GOP leaders like Paul Ryan and Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn (not to mention key GOP funders like the Koch brothers) by getting seriously and vocally behind the significant sentencing reform efforts by the "establishment right" (with or without mens rea reform), then I would increase my optimism about the odds of these reforms becoming a reality. But if Trump stays mum on this front, or especially if prodded by folks like Jeff Sessions and Chris Christie to oppose any reforms, I think the 2016 campaign dynamics will come to doom reform at least until we get to the lame duck period.

A few 2016 related posts:

May 12, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"Senators Announce New Provisions & Cosponsors to Bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act"

The title of this post is the title of a US Senate Judiciary Committee press conference that took place this afternoon and can be watched at this link (though you need for fast-forward to about the 11:45 mark of the recorded video).  This Reuters article provides these highlights:

A revised criminal justice reform bill moved closer to a full U.S. Senate vote on Thursday when it gained support from more Republicans after being stalled for months in Congress.

In a legacy-shaping issue for President Barack Obama, the measure's sponsors announced four new Republican co-sponsor senators and a new version of the bill at a press conference in the Senate. The measure now has 37 co-sponsors, according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley. Grassley said he had been waiting for the bill to be finalized before asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it up for a full Senate vote, but that "it is time for those discussions to start right now."

As revised, it still lowers mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent federal drug offenders, but it no longer applies to anyone convicted of a serious violent felony. That change was a response to conservative critics of the bill, which is central to Obama's efforts to overhaul the country's federal criminal justice system and reduce prison overcrowding. That effort has been a rare example of Republican and Democratic agreement in the polarized Congress.

The bill's advocates have said they hope the revisions and new co-sponsors, such as Republican senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Steve Daines of Montana, will convince McConnell to bring up the bill for a Senate vote.  Daines and Kirk lent their support after adding minor requirements, including a provision that savings from it go toward purposes such as fighting gangs of national significance.

After a group of conservative Republican senators led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas claimed in January the reforms would release violent felons, the bill’s authors began excising parts of the proposal that eased the sentences of violent criminals. The bill now includes a new mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving the opiate fentanyl, mirroring parallel sentencing reforms that await a floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House legislation is likely to contain changes to "mens rea" laws that govern criminal intent, said Senator John Cornyn, a sponsor of the Senate bill, at Thursday's press conference. Mens rea reform was excluded from the Senate measure because its authors were divided on the issue. Democratic lawmakers generally oppose strengthening mens rea requirements on the grounds it would enable more corporate malfeasance as it is difficult to prove the "intent" of a corporation.

To exclude violent criminals from the Senate bill, the authors removed a section that lowered minimum sentences for unlawful gun owners with three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses, known as “armed career criminals.” Such criminals represent nearly a fifth of the 12,908 current inmates who would have been eligible for resentencing under the old bill, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The folks at FAMM have this press release responding to this news, headlined "Strengthen, Don’t Weaken, Sentencing Reforms," which includes this quote from FAMM leader Julie Stewart:

“It’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of having a tenacious group of bipartisan Senators seek sentencing reform. However, this bill was very modest to begin with, and Congress should be strengthening it, not weakening it. In the last several days, Oklahoma, Maryland, and Iowa lawmakers have passed bold reforms that reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences. Congress should be following that example, capitalizing on public support for sentencing reform and passing significant reform that will seriously impact who goes to prison and for how long."

The folks at the Brennan Center have this press release headlined "Senate Should Swiftly Pass Revised Sentencing Bill."

These developments make me somewhat more optimistic that a big sentencing reform bill will get to Prez Obama's desk in the next few months, but I am still not quite ready to say enactment of such reforms are now probable.

A few 2016 related posts:

April 28, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Disconcerting report on the (declining?) state of federal statutory sentencing reform efforts in Congress

This new New York Times report on the status and fate of federal statutory sentencing reform has me getting ever closer to asserting that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not get to President Obama's desk before election day.  The piece is headlined "Garland Fight Overshadows Effort to Overhaul Sentencing Laws On Washington," and here are excerpts:

A bipartisan overhaul of criminal justice laws was supposed to be a defining issue of this Congress, a rare unifying moment for Republicans, Democrats and President Obama. Instead, the members of the Judiciary Committee who wrote the criminal justice package are at war over whether to consider Mr. Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick B. Garland.

This feud over the nomination has overshadowed the effort to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and ease the transition from prison. Now supporters of an overhaul are worried about its fate, especially with the Senate about to turn to a series of time­consuming spending bills and the electionyear calendar approaching a point where little gets done that is not absolutely necessary.

“If this is going to happen along with 12 appropriations bills, we are going to have to elbow our way into the queue,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, one of the chief Democratic authors of the bill. “The ball is now on the Republican side of the net.”

Before the death of Antonin Scalia in February created a Supreme Court vacancy, the criminal justice measure had already run into trouble from skeptical Senate Republicans, notably Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He contended that the proposed sentencing changes would result in the premature release of violent felons. And there were whispers about Willie Horton, the furloughed inmate who committed a rape while on release from a state prison in Massachusetts, a case that Republicans used in 1988 to portray Michael S. Dukakis, then the state’s governor and the Democratic nominee for president, as soft on crime.

The internal turbulence led Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, to urge Republican authors of the measure to consider changes to win over some doubters and ease party divisions. They have retooled the legislation, decreasing the chances of felons who carried guns in their crimes qualifying for lighter sentences, among other expected revisions. The changes have won the backing of at least one Republican senator, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, whose aides say will support the reworked bill.

One of its top Republican supporters says they are making progress. “We continue to do work on criminal justice reform, to try to meet some of the concerns that have been previously stated and to shore up support and show additional support both inside and outside the Capitol for those important reforms,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Tuesday.

One problem backers of the bill have run into is that senators are questioning the political risk of supporting it when the measure might not go anywhere before the November elections. At the same time, some on the left contend that the measure has been too watered down.

Hoping to restore momentum, leaders of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a coalition of conservative and liberal groups behind the legislative effort, plan to bring leading advocates from around the country to Washington next week. They will meet with undecided senators and House members to make the case for the measure. The group has also scheduled a briefing for Senate staff members on Friday with former senior law enforcement officials to try to build support and ease doubts among Senate Republicans....Other backers of the measure, including some in the Senate, are expected to step up their push for the legislation next week as well, and new endorsements could be coming.

In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin recently reaffirmed his support for a criminal justice overhaul, calling himself a late convert to the cause and promising to move forward with legislation. “We’re going to bring criminal justice reform bills, which are now out of the Judiciary Committee, to the House floor and advance this,” he said in a recent question-­and-­answer session....

Some see a potential upside in the Supreme Court fight. Mr. McConnell could be more motivated to bring the criminal justice measure to the Senate floor to show that Republicans, who are under withering criticism from Democrats on a daily basis over the Garland nomination, can work in a bipartisan way and produce some accomplishments.

“Senator McConnell has one of the bigger incentives to work on this particular bill because it is one of the few, if not the only, things that the left and right agree on,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute affiliated with the New York University School of Law.

What happens in the next few weeks will determine if the criminal justice effort has a chance this year.  Failure to find consensus would represent a major defeat not just for President Obama and congressional backers of the legislation, but also for the unusual coalition of disparate political forces that united behind it as an overdue course correction from the tough­-on-­crime approach of the 1990s.

I am starting now to worry that more than a few folks on the left may be disinclined to encourage Democratic Senators like Dick Durban to elbow the SRCA into the queue based on the hope that a big Democratic victory in November would enable a push for a more robust and far-reaching reform bill.  Moreover, as every day passes, it seem to me increasingly easy given various 2016 election timelines for any and every fence-sitting Senator to urge leadership to postpone a vote on federal sentencing reform at least until the 2016 lame duck sesssion or in the next Congress.

A few 2016 related posts:

 

UPDATE: I just came across this recent Roll Call piece striking similar themes and headlines "White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort: Cornyn 'optimistic' but GOP fissures, floor time posing problems."

April 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

"To change the world, start with prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable FoxNews commentary authored by Christian Colson. Here are excerpts:

One Easter weekend, I accompanied my father, Charles Colson, to a prison in South Carolina. We held a worship service on Death Row, and about 20 men came out of their cells to sing songs and listen to my dad give a message about the resurrection of Jesus.

My father, whose books on Christian life and thought have sold more than 5 million copies, could have spent Easter weekend in more influential pulpits.  He could have commanded an audience of thousands of Christians who were well-resourced and well-connected, rather than men in prison jumpsuits.  But instead, every Easter for decades following his release from prison in 1975 for a Watergate-related crime until his death in 2012, he chose to go back behind bars to celebrate with the incarcerated.  My father understood that if we want to change the world, we must start behind bars.

The criminal justice system may not seem like the place to initiate cultural renewal, but no place could be better. When our nation’s 2.2 million prisoners are held in conditions that do little to help address the roots of criminal behavior, they remain likely to continue in a criminal lifestyle after they are released.

Prisoners might seem like improbable standard bearers for cultural transformation, but my dad believed wholeheartedly that whenever prisoners are transformed, they will transform the culture of their prisons and society at large....

Prisons are full of untapped potential.  Under the right conditions, many people — like my father — can pay their debt to society, prepare for a new future and make the most of their second chance.  A variety of prison programs that address the roots of criminal behavior through education, mentoring, substance-abuse treatment and more have been shown to reduce recidivism.

Legislation based on restorative values can support this goal.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, now making its way through Congress, would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to implement and incentivize programming to reduce rates of re-offense.  This is good news not just for prisoners but for everyone affected by crime and incarceration.  When recidivism rates go down, more children grow up seeing their parents outside of a prison waiting room.  There are fewer victims.  Communities have a chance to flourish as they benefit from the contributions of members who are successfully reintegrating.

At the first Easter, mourners gathered at the tomb of a man who had been executed with criminals.  There seemed to be no future for his followers, a small group of poorly educated misfits with no worldly power or influence.  And yet, the nascent Christian movement transformed the culture of the Roman Empire and the entire modern history of the world.

When my dad spent “Resurrection Sunday” behind bars with prisoners, including those condemned to die, he often invoked that first Easter, where the hope of the Gospel emerged from a sealed tomb that was supposed to be as secure as any prison....  As Easter reminds us, the change the world most needs sometimes comes from unexpected places.

March 24, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Quick (inside-the-Beltway) reflections on the latest odds of those inside-the-Beltway getting federal sentencing reform done in 2016

As I briefly mentioned in a prior post, yesterday and today I have been attending and participating in the Alternative Sentencing Key-Stakeholder Summit (ASKS) taking place at the Georgetown University Law Center.  In addition to being greatly impressed by all the speakers and attendees, I have particularly benefitted from hearing this afternoon directly from Senator Charles Grassley and other key players involved in federal sentencing reforms efforts.  After hearing these folks discuss their work and the possibility of enactment of federal sentencing reform this year, I wanted to share some (too quick) reflections in the form of good news and bad news:

Good News regarding prospects for reforms making it through Congress:  Senator Grassley is clearly interested in and now seems quite committed to getting some form of federal sentencing reform through Congress this year.  He stated that work is afoot to modify his Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to respond to concerns expressed by Senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz and others. This Reuters report on Senator Grassley's short speech provides the details, and here are the basics:

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley said on Tuesday that amendments to a bill to lower sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders are close to being finished. Grassley said the amendments, which go further to ensure violent offenders are not released, will build more support for the bill among Republican leadership in the Senate, which will decide whether to bring the bill up for a vote.

"We are very close to making some changes in this bill so we can get it brought before the United States Senate," Grassley said.... Grassley called Cotton's concerns "legitimate and reasonable" when speaking at Georgetown University Law School on Tuesday.

Though he did not provide specifics on the amendments, Grassley did say his team of legislators may have to drop parts of the bill that would have allowed offenders caught with firearms in their possession to have their sentences lowered. "We may have to jettison some changes in the firearm offenses and we may be able to do a better job to make sure that no one with a serious history of violence can get any relief under the bill," Grassley said....

"I'm confident that with the changes that we're making in the bill that we'll get even more support for our bill," Grassley said.  "And with more support, I'm confident that we will be able to go to the leaders in the Senate and persuade them that this bill is exactly what the American people need to see happen in the United States Senate."

As this last quote hints, Senator Grassley also spoke about all the complaints he receives back in Iowa and elsewhere about leaders in DC spending all their time fighting over politics and not getting anything actually done. Senator Grassley's comments have me now thinking that he and other GOP members of the Senate are likely to stress bipartisan work on sentencing reform when attacked by Democrats and others for "not doing anything" in response to the coming SCOTUS nomination or on other priorities. And work on sentencing reform will not seem all that meaningful if a bill does not come to the floor of the Senate at some point.

Bad News regarding prospects for reforms making it through Congress:  Though not mentioned by Senator Grassley, getting a bill to the Senate floor and passed with a majority vote is only half the battle, of course.  The House of Represenatives also needs to pass a parallel bill, and there are continuing reasons to fear that the House will not move forward on sentencing reform bills unless and until mens rea reform is a part of the equation.  I am not sure concerns about mens rea reforms will alone scuttle reforms in Congress, but it already seems to have slowed the momentum for reform in various ways.  And every day that goes by without the legislative process moving forward tangibly is yet another day lost before the congressional election season gets into full swing when members of Congress start focusing more on November voting dynamics rather than whether they get anything done on a complicated policy issue that involves lots of compromises and intricacies.

Speaking of compromises and intricacies (as well as the coming election season), there may end up being some significant voices on the left that jump off the reform train after Senator Grassley makes his already modest Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act even more modest.  The original SRCA was so modest that some significant advocates for reform, including elected officials and policy groups, have already express serious concern that it does not mearly go far enough.  We likely will hear more of these complaints after we see the modified SRCA, and that in turn may lead advocates on both sides of the aisle to be content to wait and hope that their preferred candidates win in November and then to try again in 2017.  

A few prior related posts:

March 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 07, 2016

Is the Supreme Court fight already starting to "doom" federal statutory sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this commentary piece authored by Inimai Chettiar from the Brennan Center for Justice which carries the headline "Don't Lock Up Prison Reform: Congress' fight over the Supreme Court shouldn't doom desperately needed sentencing reform." Here are excerpts (which includes something of a status report from Congress):

With a heated partisan battle over the future of the Supreme Court entering a stalemate, and some Democrats threatening to shut down the Senate, many are starting to expect nothing will get done in Congress this year.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  There is one topic on which lawmakers can act, even in this bitter climate.  The same Senate Judiciary Committee members sparring over the Supreme Court nomination process will soon announce a long-awaited compromise on a bill to help reduce America's prison population.

Can our nation's leaders put aside their differences to help resolve one of the largest crises facing our country?  We certainly hope so.  The bill would be the largest congressional action on criminal justice reform in a generation, and a rare attempt at cooperation across party lines.  Lawmakers should not allow partisan bickering over the next Supreme Court justice to destroy a chance to fix a system we all agree is not working.  Congress must act fast, in this rare area of bipartisan accord, to pass sentencing reform....

Much has been learned in the last 25 years about who should be locked up and for how long.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recalibrates sentencing laws to implement these lessons....

Last month, Sens. Tom Cotton and Jeff Sessions raised concerns the legislation would jeopardize public safety.  In response, a group of nationally prominent police chiefs and prosecutors — the men and women who protect our safety every day — explained how the bill would actually help reduce crime.

Now, co-sponsors Sens. John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee are revising the bill to address these anxieties.  At least two major changes are expected.  One would remove a provision from the bill that would have reduced mandatory minimums for repeat felons caught with a firearm.  Another would limit current prisoners' ability to seek reduced sentences under the new law if they committed certain serious crimes.  To many progressive advocates, these changes significantly reduce the breadth of the bill.

But even if there's a compromise bill, the next step is getting it to the floor for a vote.  Last week, Grassley met with President Barack Obama to tell him the Judiciary Committee will not hold a hearing or vote if he puts forth a Supreme Court nominee. It's rumored that some Democrats would allow the sentencing bill to falter if Republicans try to block a nominee.

But it is a false choice to pit sentencing reform against a Supreme Court battle.  Accord on one shouldn't be overridden by combat on the other....  Congress has passed legislation during other confirmation clashes.  While Justice Elena Kagan's nomination was pending in 2010, Congress passed a series of significant bills including sanctions against Iran, the Dodd-Frank Act, and another criminal justice law called the Fair Sentencing Act.  In 2005, a year that saw the confirmation of two new Supreme Court justices (Roberts and Alito), Congress passed a free trade act.

Both parties have a decision to make. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must decide whether to bring the measure to the Senate floor.  His Democratic counterparts Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi must choose whether to bridge the divide, even if temporarily.  We will soon see how much the parties really care about getting government to work — and how much their cares about over-incarceration are more than just words.

Our politicians will not be able to sell the notion that the people's business should come to a complete halt for the sake of election-year posturing.  The time has finally come for criminal justice reform.  With Congress at a flashpoint over the Supreme Court, bipartisan cooperation to act matters now more than ever.

March 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Mark Holden, GC at Koch Industries, makes "The Factual Case for Criminal Justice Reform"

As regular readers know, various groups and persons associated with the wealthy and politically active Koch brothers have been very supportive of state and federal sentencing reform efforts. Continuing in that tradition, Mark Holden, who is senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, Inc., has authored this new Medium commentary titled "The Factual Case for Criminal Justice Reform."  I recommend the piece is full (with all its links), and here are excerpts:

These days, it’s hard to find legislation in Washington, D.C. that has bipartisan support. It’s even harder to find legislation that will help people improve their lives instead of making their lives worse.

Yet that’s exactly what both houses of Congress are currently doing through criminal justice reform legislation.  The Senate is considering the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  It contains a series of long overdue reforms that have been tried at the state level and have been proven to reduce crime, lower spending on incarceration, reduce incarceration rates, and give people a better chance at leading a productive and fulfilling life once they’re released from prison.

There’s little doubt that the current system is dysfunctional.  American criminal justice is too often inconsistent with the promises of the Bill of Rights.  We have a two-tiered system, with the wealthy and the well-connected experiencing a much better system than the poor, oftentimes regardless of guilt or innocence.  A growing number of Americans recognize this  —  nearly 80 percent of the country supports reform.  So do many prosecutors and judges.  For example, liberal federal Judge Rakoff of the Southern District of New York and conservative Judge Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have raised awareness that innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they cannot effectively defend themselves against the power of the government.  That is why calls for reform are growing so loud from both ends of the political spectrum that Congress can no longer ignore these problems, which have festered for more than three decades.

The numbers speak for themselves. Over the past decades more and more Americans are put behind bars, sometimes for crimes they didn’t commit or with punishments that are not consistent with the crime. The result has been a skyrocketing prison population that ruins lives and wastes money. At the federal level alone, the number of prisoners has increased by 795 percent in the past 35 years. Federal and state spending on prisons also increased over this timeframe to $8 billion annually, which is 3 to 4 times more per capita than we spend on education. America is now the world’s largest jailer, with only 5 percent of the world’s population but a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. And there are as many Americans with a college degree as there are Americans with a criminal record.

As more people get caught in this system, it breaks apart families, destabilizes communities, increases poverty, and makes it harder — if not impossible — for people to rejoin society after they’ve served their sentence. Why? Because criminal convictions are accompanied by countless collateral consequences that burden people for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes the need for reform. As demand for reform grows louder, the defenders of the status quo are mobilizing. Their argument is simple: Reforming the criminal justice system will endanger society and put people’s lives at risk. But these claims have no basis in reality. In fact, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will have the opposite effect.

Many of its most important provisions are modeled after successful reforms from states such as Georgia, Utah, Kentucky, and Texas. In the past decade, more than half of states have passed a variety of changes to their criminal justice systems. Some lowered mandatory minimums  —  non-negotiable sentences that can run into the decades  —  for low-level offenders.  Others gave judges greater discretion in sentencing. And still more tried a variety of other worthwhile reforms, including prison reform and expungement of past criminal records so worthy individuals seeking redemption could put their past mistakes behind them and have a fresh start when leaving prison.

The results speak for themselves.  While the federal imprisonment rate increased by 15 percent over the last decade, the state rate fell by 4 percent.  This didn’t lead to an increase in crime, either.  No less than 32 states saw drops in both the percentage of people imprisoned and the overall crime rate.  Put another way: Criminal justice reform made society safer.

We need federal reforms along the same lines. That’s what the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would do, which is why it has broad support from law enforcement.  It contains a variety of reforms that would enhance public safety and make the criminal justice system more fair and humane....

Will lawmakers seize this opportunity to make people’s lives better, or will they fall prey to fear-mongering?  For the sake of the least fortunate in society, I certainly hope they make the right choice.

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

March 2, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Former AG Mukasey delivers "clear" message to GOP on SRCA: "Law enforcement asks you to pass this bill."

The Hill has now published this notable new op-ed authored by Michael Mukasey and Ronal Serpas under the headline "Federal sentencing reform will aid law enforcement." Here are excerpts:

The Senate is back in session amid recent warnings from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that federal sentencing reform would jeopardize public safety. They say the country cannot risk reform.

As a former attorney general under President George W. Bush who has overseen thousands of prosecutions, and a police chief with three decades of experience, we have dedicated our lives to the safety of this country.

We can firmly say that sentencing reform done right will not harm public safety. In fact, it will enhance it. We were some of the original supporters of the 1990s “tough on crime” laws. After decades of enforcing them, we and our colleagues — police chiefs and U.S. attorneys — now recognize many provisions, like overly harsh sentencing, went too far.

Much has been learned in the last 25 years about who should be locked up and for how long. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recalibrates sentencing policy to meet the needs of the 21st century. Lowering mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crimes will reduce unnecessary incarceration. This will allow us to better direct law enforcement resources to arresting, prosecuting, and punishing the most serious and violent criminals.

That’s why we and 130 of our law enforcement colleagues wrote to congressional leadership urging them to pass the act. Those standing with us include two former U.S. attorneys general, two directors of the FBI, 21 sitting police chiefs and 68 former U.S. attorneys.

Our message to Republican leadership is clear: Law enforcement asks you to pass this bill. Targeted and appropriate sentencing is a superior approach to controlling crime....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act offers a better path forward. It would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for repeat nonviolent drug offenders. And it would allow judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimums for low-level offenders if — after hearing specific circumstances of the crime — they feel it is appropriate.

Contrary to what opponents have claimed, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not swing open the prison doors and release thousands of hardcore violent criminals onto the streets. Every single prisoner eligible for early release will be carefully scrutinized by judges. And only if the judges feel it’s appropriate will they release them. This judicial check ensures the worst criminals will remain where they belong — in prison — while those who pose little threat can get off the taxpayers’ tab and begin productively contributing to society.

The bill would also expand the use of mandatory minimums for offenders with previous convictions for violent crimes, and it creates new mandatory minimums for terrorism-related crimes, giving federal law enforcement additional mechanisms to keep those most dangerous behind bars.

Now is the time for Congress to act. Reducing the population of our overcrowded prisons is one of the few goals on which those on the left and right agree. We want to make it clear where law enforcement stands: Not only is passing federal legislation to reform mandatory minimum sentences necessary to reduce incarceration, it will also help us keep crime at its historic low.

Some recent prior related posts on SRCA:

March 1, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 08, 2016

Politico reporting that (minor?) changes are being made to Senate's SRCA bill to appease GOP critics

This notable new Politico article, headlined "Criminal justice bill will be changed after conservative objections," reports on changes being made to certain provisions of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (which I have called SCRA 2015 since its introduction last fall).  Here are all the important details:

Senators who authored a criminal justice overhaul are preparing several key changes to their bill aimed at mollifying conservative critics.  In recent weeks, a handful of Senate Republicans — led primarily by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — have argued that the criminal justice reform bill would allow thousands of felons convicted of violent crimes to be released early from prison.  Supporters say that’s an unfair characterization, but now they are making changes meant to eliminate any chance that those criticisms could become reality.

One change involves Section 105 of the bill, which reduced enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for so-called “armed career criminals.”  Under the original proposal, certain felons who already had three violent felony or serious drug offense convictions, and were found guilty of possessing a firearm would face a 10-year enhanced mandatory minimum — lowered from the current 15-year minimum sentence. But the bill’s authors are planning to get rid of this section altogether so that the higher, 15-year sentence remains intact, a senior GOP aide said Monday.  The aide added that this section was the subject of the most complaints from conservatives.

The second major change is to Section 104 of the bill.  That section reduces enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for felons convicted of possessing a firearm while committing a drug crime or a violent offense, such as robbery.  Those changes could be applied retroactively for current inmates.  Now, the new version would specifically bar people convicted of firearm possession alongside a violent crime from being able to retroactively seek a reduced sentence.  Those changes would “substantively" lower the number of current prisoners who could be released early, the aide said.  “We have changed the bill to directly address those concerns and ensure that violent offenders will not benefit from relief under any of the provisions in the retroactive provisions,” the senior Republican aide said.

The changes are expected to be rolled out later this week with the support of all initial GOP and Democratic backers of the criminal justice reform measure — a bill that’s been eyed as one of the few bipartisan accomplishments that could get done in Washington during a polarized election year.  The legislation was introduced last fall with the backing of a diverse Senate coalition that includes Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Republican and Democrat on the Judiciary Committee; the two chief vote-counters of each party, GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Dick Durbin of Illinois; conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and liberals including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), aware of the divisions in his conference on the criminal justice measure, has so far declined to say whether he’ll put the bill on the floor this year.

I suspect many eager to see sweeping federal sentencing reforms will be disappointed to hear that SCRA 2015, which many reform advocates already believe does not go nearly far enough, is now being modified to restrict further the reach of reforms to certain mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  But I am actually quite excited to hear this news because it reveals there are on-going efforts to address the stated concerns of current opponents of the bill.  If those concerns can be adequately addressed by what would appear, from the description above, only relatively small changes to a big bill, then I will become more optimistic again about the prospects of some significant statutory reform coming to Prez Obama's desk before he leaves the Oval Office.

Prior to hearing this news, I had been persistently pessimistic about SCRA 2015 ever even coming up for a full Senate vote given that prominent conservative Senators like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz were voicing significant opposition.  But maybe these reported changes will be sufficient for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to be now willing to bring SCRA 2015 up for a vote.   Of course, this story does not mention the still heated debate over whether mens rea reform will become an integral part of the Senate's statutory reform activities, and thus this Politico news is anything but a guarantee that federal statutory sentencing reform is sure to become a reality.  Still, this Politico piece does encouragingly suggest the sausage factory that is federal lawmaking is continuing to grind its way forward on federal statutory sentencing reform.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

February 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Former AG Michael Mukasey and other former DOJ leaders urge Senate to move forward with vote on sentencing and corrections reform

This new article from Roll Call, headlined "Former Officials Press Senate for Sentencing Bill Vote," reports on the latest inside-the-Beltway federal sentencing reform development. Here are the basics:

Dozens of former federal prosecutors and government officials sent a letter to the Senate leadership Tuesday urging a vote on a bipartisan bill to overhaul the nation’s criminal sentencing laws.

The letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., seeks to counter concerns about the bill (S 2123) and instead focus on improvements it makes to the corrections system. “Otherwise, good policy reforms could easily fall victim to politics and fear,” the letter states.

Signers include Michael Mukasey, an attorney general under President George W. Bush, former FBI directors Louis J. Freeh and William S. Sessions, several former U.S. attorneys and several federal appeals court and district court judges....

McConnell, who makes the decision about floor votes, has not said if the Senate will vote on the bill. Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, a co-sponsor, has said that would happen in 2016. Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, is also pressing for a vote soon.

The momentum for a sentencing overhaul bill faces a challenge because of the tight schedule in an election year and the possibility that the Republicans won't retain their Senate majority. There is also opposition, including from a separate group of former federal prosecutors who sent a letter to leadership in December with concerns about the bill.

The letter sent by Mukasey and others Tuesday seeks to counter those concerns. It says the bill makes “modest, reasonable changes” that would amend “just a few sentencing policies that produced unintended consequences and created imbalance in the scales of justice.”

The bill ties longer mandatory minimum prison sentences to high-level drug traffickers and violent criminals, gives prosecutors new tools to seek enhanced penalties for violent criminals and gives federal prisons a way to make the public safer by reducing the number of inmates who commit crimes once released from their sentence.

“A drug dealer using a gun will still be subject to a significant mandatory minimum sentence for use of the firearm plus additional time for the underlying drug offense,” the letter states. “And since the Department of Justice has committed to a case-by-case review to ensure that any resentencing is done carefully and with complete transparency, offenders who pose a threat to public safety will not be released early.”

Having former GW Bush Attorney General Mukasey on this pro-reform letter strikes me as quite significant because he has been seemingly hesitatant to support big sentencing reforms in the recent past. I doubt this letter itself will dramatically change the political and practical dynamics of getting federal sentencing reform done in the coming months, but advocates of reform shold certainly be glad to have former AG Mukasey now on the reform bandwagon.

UPDATE: The letter signed by former AG Mukasey reference above is available at this link. Another similar letter urging federal sentencing reforms addressed to both House and Senate leaders signed by over 70 prominent police chiefs and federal prosecutors is available at this link.  In addition, this new Politico article, headlined "GOP split threatens sentencing overhaul," reports on the state of play in the Senate.  Here is how it starts:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faces snowballing pressure to tackle an overhaul of the criminal justice system. But deep dissension within his own party — between pro-reform Republicans and law-and-order types — is threatening one of the few items on the congressional agenda with a real chance of becoming law this year.

January 19, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

House Judiciary Committee advances its Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 for full House consideration

As reported in this article from The Hill, today the "House Judiciary Committee passed a criminal justice reform bill ... that would reduce certain mandatory minimum prison sentences to address overcrowding in the federal prison population."  Here is more on how this came to pass:

In a voice vote, the committee moved Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) bill — the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 — to the full House for consideration.

The bill reduces mandatory minimum sentences for a second serious drug offense from 20 to 15 years and reduces mandatory sentences for a third drug trafficking offense or violent felony from life in prison to 25 years.

While the bill allows the reduced sentencing reforms to apply retroactively to offenders already serving time, Goodlatte said it does not do so blindly. “The bill excludes from retroactivity any offender who has a prior conviction for a serious violent felony, for which the offender served 13 months or more in prison,” he said....

The committee did approve an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) to require the Department of Justice and the sentencing commission to update its 2011 mandatory minimum sentencing report. The amendment also expresses that it is the sense of Congress that mental health is a critical component of criminal justice reform. In offering his support for the amendment, which was authored by Sensenbrenner and Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Conyers said it’s important for Congress to recognize the need to better integrate mental health treatment as part of its reform efforts.

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) offered an amendment to exempt heroin users from the legislation, but it was thrown out by the committee.

This legislative development gets us one step closer to having significant federal sentencing reform on the desk of Prez Obama before the end of this year. But I am disinclined to get too excited unless and until I hear that a full House vote and a full Senate vote are scheduled.

November 18, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 02, 2015

"Sentencing Reforms Need Voices From Victims: Amid the bipartisan effort to fix a broken criminal justice system, a key perspective is missing."

The title of this post is the full headline of this notable National Law Journal op-ed authored by Mary Leary. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The Senate Judiciary Committee last month advanced, on a bipartisan basis, the historic Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.  This act has been described as the most significant criminal justice reform in decades.  It proposes to drastically alter the sentences of thousands of criminals, recalibrating the entire structure of our criminal justice system.

While the Judiciary Committee's recent move is good news for sentencing reform, the news about the process of this bill is more mixed. It is critical that different stakeholders with distinct perspectives weigh in on this landmark legislation before it is passed.  Yet, guess how many crime victims organizations were called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee?  Zero....

As evidenced by President Barack Obama's recent meetings with the Major Cities Chiefs of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, some policymakers understand that, to achieve legitimacy, the reforms need to be more than "bipartisan."  They must be a product of dialogue with all stakeholders, not just offenders' organizations.

Yet, apparently no one in the Senate thought it appropriate to hear what victims have to say about criminal justice reform.  Last year, about 1.17 million violent crimes and nearly 8.3 million property crimes were reported to law enforcement.  The victims of that criminal activity are the people who bear the direct and secondary harm.

That is not all. It is not just that victims were not included as witnesses; they were barely even mentioned.  A review of the written testimony of all nine witnesses indicates that the word "victim" or any derivative thereof was used a mere nine times....

And if victim groups have concerns, would not the bill become stronger if they were considered and perhaps included in its drafting?  Although prosecutorial figures did testify, it is a mistake to assume they speak for victims.  Indeed, that is how it should be, as the prosecutor's role is to represent the entire community and do justice, not to act as a victim's personal attorney.

A functioning criminal justice system must have legitimacy and a reformed fair sentencing scheme advances that goal.  But a criminal justice system loses some legitimacy if it does not hear the voice of a major stakeholder — the victims.

The president and Congress need to reach out to victims. The president has gone all the way to Oklahoma to meet with prisoners. Perhaps he should take a walk in Washington and meet with one of the victims of the over 40,000 crimes that occurred there in 2014 or speak to the families affected by a homicide rate that has increased over 47 percent since last year.

Similarly, in 2004, Congress passed the Crime Victims Rights Act. This act afforded victims the right to be "reasonably heard" at public court proceedings.  This same Congress should recognize that right in this context and allow victims to be "reasonably heard" regarding this major legislation.  Not only is it reasonable to listen to crime victims, but it is necessary for any criminal justice reform to be legitimate.

November 2, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The simple, sound and shrewd ACCA/Johnson fix in SRCA 2015

I have now had a chance to give extra thought to the proposed statutory changes appearing in Section 105 of the Senate's Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA 2015, S. 2123, here).  When I first looked at this Section, labelled an "Amendment to certain penalties for certain firearm offenses and armed career criminal provision," I was a bit surprised to see it did not seem to directly address or respond to the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Johnson v. United States striking down a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague.  But upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion, as reflected in the title of this post, that the proposed statutory changes appearing in Section 105 of SRCA constitute a simple, sound and shrewd way to fix some of the broader ACCA problems that Johnson reflects.  Let me explain my thinking here.

1.  Though the Johnson vagueness ruling addressed the most confounding statutory provision of ACCA (the so-called "residual clause"), the ruling is really just a symptom of the broader ACCA disease.  That broader disease concerns the fact that, under current federal law, the same basic offense of being a felon in possession of a firearm (FIP) has a statutory maximum prison sentence of 10 years UNLESS the offender has three ACCA-qualifying priors, in which case the offender faces a mandatory minimum 15-year prison sentence.  Because the stakes of what qualifies as an ACCA prior is now so consequential, there is (understandably) lots and lots of litigation over what state priors trigger ACCA.

2.  The Johnson ruling, culminating a decade of Supreme Court (and lower court) struggles with one clause defining ACCA predicates, eliminated one source of uncertainty and litigation by declaring that clause unconstitutionally vague.  But lots of other parts of ACCA have also generated uncertainty and litigation, and the Johnson ruling did nothing to resolve or minimize the importance of all that uncertainty and litigation.  Moreover, if Congress were to try to just "fix" the language of the ACCA residual clause that Johnson struck down, litigation would be sure to follow concerning the meaning of any fix language. 

3.  Into this enduring ACCA morass comes Section 105 of SRCA which, through a relative tweak, arguably fixes all these problems by raising the FIP statutory prison maximum to 15 years while lowering the ACCA mandatory minimum to 10 years.  Through this simple change, there will no longer be a critical imperative for prosecutors (or probation officers) or sentencing judges (or appellate courts) to figure out in every close case whether an FIP offender qualifies for ACCA.  If SRCA 2015 becomes law, in the many cases that legally are "close calls," federal judges will reasonably conclude that a prison sentence in the range of 10 to 15 is about right, and there will be no need to have a major legal fight over what exactly qualifies as an ACCA predicate.  (In addition, if Section 105 of SRCA 2015 is enacted, judges will have greater discretion to punish harshly the worst FIP offenders who do not trigger ACCA and will also still be compelled to give at least 10 years to FIP offenders who clearly qualify for ACCA penalties.)

4.  The US Sentencing Commission's recent statement concerning SRCA 2015 discusses why its own extensive research on mandatory minimums support this reform (and why it would, in turn, be just to make this change retroactive):

The Commission observed [in its extensive study of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions] that the ACCA’s mandatory minimum penalty can apply to offenders who served no or minimal terms of imprisonment for their predicate offenses, which increased the potential for inconsistent application insofar as the 15-year penalty may be viewed as excessively severe in those cases.  To mitigate both the over-severity and disparate application of the ACCA, the Commission recommended that Congress consider clarifying the statutory definitions in the ACCA and reduce its severity.

5. By making its ACCA changes retroactive, SRCA 2015 not only could bring more equitable and just outcomes to many offenders previously subject to severe ACCA terms based on debatable interpretations of ACCA priors, it also could potentially short-circuit lots of complicated (and expensive) post-Johnson habeas litigtion that might well divide lower courts and take years to resolve through layers of complicated federal appeals. (Post-Johnson litigation is already starting to divide lower courts on some issues, and lots of enduring litigation messiness (and costs) seem inevitable without the SRCA fix and its retroactivity provision.)

I could go on and on (especially to praise the particular way SRCA 2015 makes its ACCA fix retroactive), but I fear this post is already more than long enough.  And I am be especially interested in hearing from those laboring in the post-Johnson ACCA litigation trenches concerning whether they share my latest feeling that the SRCA 2015 fix may now represent the best of all possible ACCA worlds. 

November 1, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

US Sentencing Commission provides estimates on likely impact of sentencing reforms in SRCA 2015

I have been remiss for failing to highlight in this space the notable analysis recently done by the US Sentencing Commission in conjunction with the Senate's work on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA 2015, S. 2123, here).  That analysis appears in full form in this extended statement by USSC Chair Patti Saris to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it appears in summary form in this USSC news release praising the Committee's passage of SRCA 2015 through to the full Senate.  Here are the key data appearing in short form in the press release: 

According to the Commission’s analysis, key provisions of S. 2123 would:

• Provide retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which could allow 5,826 offenders currently in prison to receive an approximate 20 percent reduction in sentence.

• Permit certain offenders who are currently subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum penalty to be subject to the 5-year mandatory minimum instead, which would reduce the sentence of 550 offenders annually by approximately 19.3 percent.

• Broaden the safety valve to provide greater relief to more low-level, non-violent offenders, which would reduce the sentence of 3,314 offenders annually by nearly 20 percent and save 1,593 federal prison beds within 5 years of enactment.

• Reduce mandatory minimum penalties for recidivist drug offenders with prior drug felony convictions from 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the mandatory life imprisonment penalty for certain offenders to 25 years while both narrowing and expanding the types of prior offenses that could trigger a mandatory minimum.

• Reduce the mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement for using a firearm in the commission of a violent crime or drug offense from 25 years to 15 years, and narrow the circumstances in which multiple sentencing enhancements apply, which would reduce the sentence of 62 offenders annually by 30.4 percent.

• Reduces the mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act from 15 to 10 years, which would reduce the sentence of 277 offenders each year by approximately 21.6 percent. The bill would apply this provision retroactively, which, if granted, could result in a sentence reduction for 2,317 offender currently in federal prison.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 29, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Noting the potential sentencing reform benefit from the latest budget deal

This notable new BuzzFeed article highlights an interesting link between the new budget deal and on-going sentencing reform efforts inside the Beltway.  The extended headline of the article tells the basic story: "Criminal Justice Advocates Get A Gift From The Budget Deal: More Time: Lawmakers think they will now have time early in 2016 to pursue the bipartisan criminal justice package that would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences."  Here are excerpts:

Efforts to change the nation’s criminal justice system got a major boost Tuesday. Congressional leaders began pushing a budget deal Tuesday to raise the debt limit and avert a shutdown until 2017.  Although the funding bill is completely separate from the criminal justice legislation lawmakers have been working on, if approved, it would give Congress more breathing room to focus on criminal justice changes before the 2016 election heats up.

With funding for the government set to expire in mid-December, advocates had been concerned that fiscal issues would dominate Congress through this year and potentially into next year, delaying the measure which has bipartisan support and took more than three years to negotiate.

But if the budget deal is signed into law, it could add to the momentum building in favor of the criminal justice legislation, which would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentencing.  “This is the best possible scenario for us that the budget stuff is working itself out,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the bipartisan U.S. Justice Action Network. “This has cleared the way for our legislation.”

Republican leaders in the Senate even addressed the issue in their weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon, which in itself was a major victory, Harris said.  “Just the fact that leadership is talking about this bill is monumental,” she said.  “A year ago, many thought this wasn’t possible. In fact, two months ago no one thought this was possible.”...

During the Senate GOP leadership’s weekly press conference Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn urged the Senate to take up the issue as soon as possible. “The president’s in Chicago today talking about criminal justice reform, and as you know, there’s a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, one composed of sentencing reforms and also prison reforms,” Cornyn told reporters.

“This is one area where I’ve told the majority leader that with that kind of broad bipartisan support, hopefully after we get through the rest of this year’s business, this is something we could take up,” he said. “The House is considering a similar bill. And with the president’s support of the idea of criminal justice reform, it’s seems like the time is right. “

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed support for bringing up the legislation to the floor for a vote, but did not give a timeline. “It’s certainly going to get floor time in this Congress, but I can’t give you an exact time at this point,” he told reporters.

Senate GOP aides believe it will be hard to take up the issue before next year even if the budget is taken care of in the coming days. But it does give senators who are supporting the measure the time and energy needed to lobby their colleagues and gear up for a vote when Congress returns in January. “I’m just encouraged by the momentum on criminal justice reform overall,” New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker told BuzzFeed News. “This bipartisan, bicameral energy is encouraging. It shows that we can come together and get things done.”

October 29, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

SRCA 2015 passes through Senate Judiciary Committee by vote of 15-5

This press release from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley reports on the continued legislative movement of the Senate's big Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA 2015, S. 2123).  Here are the basics via the press release:

The Senate Judiciary Committee today passed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which grants judges greater sentencing flexibility for certain low-level drug offenders and establishes recidivism reduction programs, while targeting violent criminals. The bill passed the committee by a vote of 15-5.  The bill passed today includes minor clarifications to the original bill text.

The bill is the product of a thoughtful bipartisan deliberation led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin.  Original cosponsors include Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).  Other cosponsors include Senators Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). 

“Today’s bipartisan Committee vote demonstrates the broad consensus that we can thoughtfully addresses the most serious and complex matters in prison sentencing. This bill preserves sentences necessary to keep violent offenders and career criminals out of our communities while addressing over-incarceration concerns and working to reduce recidivism. I’m grateful for the hard work and support of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and look forward to action by the full senate to move this historic reform forward,” Grassley said....

The bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening and establishing new outlets for individuals with minimal non-felony criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law.  The bill also reduces certain mandatory minimums, providing judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences, and preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins.    

In addition to reducing prison terms for certain offenders through sentencing reform, qualifying inmates can earn reduced sentences through recidivism reduction programs outlined in the CORRECTIONS Act introduced by Cornyn and Whitehouse. The bill also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act and certain statutory reforms that address inequities in drug sentences.

For more information on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, see the following documents: 
•    Text of Bill Passed in Committee
•    One-page bill summary
•    Section-by-section

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 22, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Submitted testimony from witnesses at SRCA 2015 hearing (and member statements) now available

As I continue to enjoy watching the still on-going big Senate hearing on the remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA 2015, S. 2123), I now have noticed that all the written testimony is available on-line.  Here are links to member statements all the submitted testimony, and I would be grateful to get help in figuring out if there is anything especially notable and interesting in all these materials.  My sense is that all the usual suspects are repeating their usual claims and viewpoints, but perhaps there may be some special needles in this testimonial haystack:

October 19, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

An ever-growing list of notable witnesses for Senate hearing on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015

As noted in this prior post, this week is a big one for consideration of the Senate's remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA 2015, S. 2123).  The fun starts this this afternoon with this big hearing on the bill before the full Senate Judiciary Committee.  I am quite excited for this hearing, in part  because everytime I check the official Senate hearing page, I see another interesting witness added to the witness list.  As of Monday morning, here is the current roster of witnesses slated to testify:

I am very interested to hear what all nine of these notable witnesses have to say about SRCA 2015. Based on prior lectures and writings, I think I can safetly predict that three or four of these witnesses will be quite supportive of most or all of the bill, and that two or three of these witnesses will be quite critical of most or all of the bill. But I am unsure whether traditional supporters of federal sentencing reform will be advocating for SRCA 2015 to be even more expansive in its reforms and whether traditional critics of federal sentencing reform will assail all or only specific parts of SRCA 2015 in its current (complicated) form.

I am cautiously hopeful that there will be some submitted written testimony that I can share in a future post. Even before hearing any of the coming advocacy for and against the bill, the very fact that the witness list for this hearing is so long reinforces my sense (and fear) that passage of a big reform bill through both house of Congress remains an uphill and uncertain battle for reform advocates.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 19, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Senate Judiciary Committee moving forward next week on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015

Earlier today I received an e-mail alert from Families Against Mandatory Minimums reporting this notable federal sentencing reform news from Capitol Hill:

There will be two important events happening in Washington, DC next week -- the U.S. Senate's Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123) is starting to move!

The first step to turn the Senate's sentencing reform bill into a law is to have the bill reviewed and approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of 20 Senators that meets regularly.

But first, on October 19, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on sentencing reform. Experts will discuss the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and Senators can ask and get answers to their questions.... Then, on October 22, the Senate Judiciary Committee will review the bill, vote on whether to make any changes to it, and vote on whether to send the final bill to the full U.S. Senate.

The full details of the events are below. If you can't come to Washington for the hearing and markup in person, you can watch them online.

BILL HEARING

When: Monday, October 19, 2015, 3:00-4:30 p.m. ET

BILL REVIEW

When: Thursday, October 22, 2015, 10:00 a.m. ET

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 14, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Basic elements of House's Sentencing Reform Act of 2015

As noted in this prior post, a bipartisan group of Respresentatives today introduced a version of sentencing reform in the form of this 18-page bill called the Sentencing Reform Act. This press release from the House Judiciary Committee provides this introduction:

The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 reduces certain mandatory minimums for drug offenses, reduces the three-strike mandatory life sentence to 25 years, broadens the existing safety valve for low-level drug offenders, and provides judges with greater discretion in determining appropriate sentences while ensuring that serious violent felons do not get out early. The bill also contains sentencing enhancements for Fentanyl trafficking, a highly addictive and deadly drug that is becoming a growing epidemic in the United States.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 is the first bill that is a result of the House Judiciary Committee’s criminal justice reform initiative. The Committee continues to work on additional bills that address other aspects of our criminal justice system, including over-criminalization, prison and reentry reform – including youth and juvenile justice issues – improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform. The Committee will roll out more bills addressing these topics over the coming weeks.

The press release also includes quotes from various House members and has links to a "one-pager on the Sentencing Reform Act [that] can be found here and section-by-section [that] can be found here."

October 8, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

House Judiciary leaders set to introduce (distinct?) big bipartisan sentencing reform bill

As detailed in this press release from the House Judiciary Committee, this morning Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) are going to release the detail of the House Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative.  Here is the statement from the pair:

For the past several months, the House Judiciary Committee has been working on a bipartisan basis on several bills to ensure our federal criminal laws and regulations appropriately punish wrongdoers, are effectively and appropriately enforced, operate with fairness and compassion, protect individual freedom, safeguard civil liberties, work as efficiently as possible, do not impede state efforts, and do not waste taxpayer dollars.

As a result of this work, we are pleased to announce that we, along with Crime Subcommittee Ranking Member Sheila Jackson Lee and a bipartisan group of leaders on this issue, will introduce companion legislation to the sentencing reform portion of the Senate bill unveiled last week by Senators Grassley, Durbin, Cornyn, Leahy, Booker and others.

We are also continuing our work on additional bills that address other aspects of our criminal justice system, including over-criminalization, prison and reentry reform, including youth and juvenile justice issues, improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform and we expect to roll out more bills addressing these topics over the coming weeks.

I am very excited to learn that the House is going to have its own version of the Senate's SRCA 2015 making the rounds. This news makes me a bit more optimistic that Congress could get a sentencing reform bill passed at to the desk of the President before the end of 2015.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 8, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 05, 2015

Leading distinct GOP Senators make the case for federal sentencing reform via SRCA 2015

I am quite pleased to see that, in the wake of introducting in the US Senate the remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA here), two prominent GOP Senators (one old guard, one new guard) have taken to the op-ed pages to explain what they are doing.   Politics_Grassley_620Here are links to these op-eds:

From (old guard) Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley in the Des Moines Register here, "I'm working for criminal justice reform."  Excerpts:

For the last several months, I’ve listened, worked, negotiated and built consensus with my colleagues on an important public policy that governs crime and punishment and has a sweeping effect on the citizenry.  The nation’s criminal justice system serves the accused and the aggrieved in our society. And the taxpaying public foots the bill for our courts, law enforcement and prisons that protect public safety and serve justice....

Notwithstanding the merits of mandatory minimums that are designed to promote the public good and public safety, federal sentencing has come under increased scrutiny for locking up low-level offenders and incarceration rates that are running up an unsustainable tab to American taxpayers, roughly $80 billion annually. There’s no doubt that drug and human trafficking and gang-related crimes continue to persist and poison the well of civic life, endangering public safety daily.  And yet, there’s room for sensible reforms that improve the criminal justice system so that it’s fair and just to victims, the accused and taxpayers.  The right policy mix of reforms can give low-level offenders who have paid their debts to society a second chance to rejoin their families and find employment in their communities.

This week I introduced the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. It reflects carefully crafted sentencing reforms to achieve fairness, justice and fidelity to the rule of law.

Our proposed reforms give the courts more flexibility in federal sentencing laws for non-violent, low-level drug offenders, including the elimination of the three strikes mandatory life provision.  We also expand the existing safety valve and add a second safety valve that provide relief from the 10-year mandatory minimum for certain low-level offenders.  It would retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine criminal drug offenses.

We also target and expand some of the existing mandatory minimums so that law enforcement can continue to pursue violent repeat offenders and gun criminals.  And we create new mandatory minimums for crimes involving interstate domestic violence and the export of weapons and other defense articles to prohibited countries and terrorists.

The scales of justice require equal rights under the law for the accused and for victims of crime.  Fairness in a criminal justice system also must consider the opportunity for reintegration.  Our bill would require the Department of Justice to classify all federal inmates and assign qualifying prisoners to a recidivism reduction program.  This may include job training, drug recovery, faith-based and work and education programs that provide eligible inmates an opportunity to earn early release.

There’s a fine line between leniency and levelheadedness.  That’s why I’m working for balanced reforms that do not compromise public safety and national security.

From (new guard) Senator Mike Lee in the Washington Examiner here, "The conservative case for criminal justice reform."  Excerpts:

The problem today is not simply that penalties are too harsh or sentences too long — though in many cases they are.  The problem is that, over the past several decades, we have industrialized and bureaucratized our criminal, judicial and penal systems.

Which is to say, we've turned them into unaccountable, short-sighted, input-oriented, self-interested institutions — immune to common sense — that treat offenders as statistical cases rather than human beings.

For conservatives, criminal justice reform is not a venue for the airing of ideological grievances or the testing of fashionable theories.  It's about helping our communities stay as safe and secure as possible, while infringing as little as possible on the God-given, equal rights of all Americans and their pursuit of happiness.

It's about designing our laws, our court procedures and our prison systems on the basis of a clear-eyed and time-tested understanding of human nature — of man's predilection toward sin and his capacity for redemption — as well as an uncompromising respect for the fundamental dignity of the human person.  Criminal justice reform, properly understood, is an invitation for principled conservatism at its best.  Our bill expands judicial discretion, so judges can treat offenders like human beings, not statistics, and punish them according to their particular circumstances, instead of indiscriminate bureaucratic guidelines.

It broadens the federal "safety valve" — a provision that allows federal judges to sentence a limited number of offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence.

The bill also improves the quality of our federal prison system, so that we have fewer first-time offenders turning into career criminals. It will expand inmates' access to vocational training, therapeutic counseling and reentry services that help offenders who have fulfilled their sentences return to their families, their communities, and lawful, steady jobs.

Reforming our federal criminal justice system doesn't require us to avert our eyes from a person's crimes, or make excuses that blame someone, or something, else for the choices he made.  No, it requires looking squarely at the facts of the case, no matter how ugly or wicked; holding offenders directly and personally accountable for their crimes; and devising a punishment that fits both the crime and the criminal.

We do this all the time in our daily lives when we recognize the humanity of hating the sin, not the sinner.  It's called forgiveness.  Forgiving is not the same thing as excusing. Nor is it incompatible with punishment.

Forgiveness requires assigning blame and, when necessary, imposing punishments — which is to say forgiveness requires treating offenders as morally responsible individuals — as human beings who, like the rest of us, have the propensity for vice and for virtue, and who must be held accountable for their choice of one or the other.

We know that no man is without sin.  Now, we must remember — in our hearts and in our laws — that no man is without hope.  This is why I'm involved — and invite you to join me — in the conservative movement for criminal justice reform.

The two lines I will remember from the pieces are sure to be "There’s a fine line between leniency and levelheadedness," and "we must remember — in our hearts and in our laws — that no man is without hope."

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 5, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Can and should the US Sentencing Commission try quickly to help everyone take stock of the SCRA 2015?

I am about to go off-line for the afternoon in order to (try to) read closely the full text of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA 2015) which was introduced today by US Senate leadership.   The full bill, which runs 141 pages and is available at this link, has so many notable parts;  I am already struggling to figure out what is what and to assess the good, the bad and the ugly of what can be found in this massive legislative proposal.  Moreover, without some basic (and not-so-basic) data about how many past, present and future federal cases could be readily impacted by various provisions, it is hard to know which are the most consequential elements of the bill from just a basic reading to the SRCA text .

Ergo, the question in the title of this post, which jumped into my head as I started to think about what to think about SRCA 2015.  I am sure it would take a very long time for the US Sentencing Commission to do a comprehensive analysis of all that appears in the SRCA 2015.  But I suspect the USSC and its terrific research staff might be able to compose quickly one of its terrific "Quick Facts" publications to aid those of us trying to better figure out what needs still be to figured out about this massive bill.

Notably and fittingly, in the press event announcing the SRCA 2015, Senator Chuck Schumer astutely described the sentencing and prison reform problem as a kind of Rubik's Cube with lots of interlocking and moving parts.  I am sincerely hopeful the US Sentencing Commission will commit itself in the days ahead to helping all of us fans of federal sentencing reform better figure out whether and how the different-colored pieces of the proposed SRCA 2015 match up.

Today's prior related posts:

October 1, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)