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December 27, 2009

The same old debates about a new federal sentencing bill

A helpful reader forwarded to me this effective local newspaper article reporting on two "classic" sentencing perspectives concerning a new federal sentencing bill.  The piece is headlined "Gang-prevention bill hits a snag with a co-sponsor's criticism," and here are excerpts:

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott's two-year effort to refocus the battle against juvenile and gang crime to prevention programs that would cost billions of dollars appears to be picking up steam. More than half the members of the U.S. House — 234 lawmakers — have signed on as co-sponsors of his bill.

The Newport News Democrat's legislation would spend $2 billion over five years to underwrite what he calls "evidence-based prevention programs" to reach high-risk youths before they turn to gangs and crime.

But U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, who had signed on as a co-sponsor, is now raising a red flag, saying the bill won't work.  The Chesapeake Republican, who has tried for years to get a tougher anti-gang sentencing bill passed, said he became a co-sponsor in June in the hopes of getting his proposals included in Scott's bill.

Scott, however, said calls for tougher sentencing do not address the continuing cycle of gang crime. "You can say things as often as you want.  The research is absolutely clear....  Mandatory minimums are a waste of taxpayer money," said Scott, who contends that the public wants the attention shifted to prevention.  "They're sick and tired of watching people shout simple-minded slogans and pass it off as crime policy."

Scott's Youth PROMISE Act — an acronym for "Prison Reduction through Opportunity, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education" — involves steering federal grants to local agencies or groups that can demonstrate they use proven methods to prevent young people from joining gangs or turning to crime.  The legislation also would provide millions to local police for victim- and witness-assistance programs in neighborhoods or cities with gang problems.

Scott said that despite considerable research and examples of successful community prevention programs, government funding mostly has focused on capturing criminals.  If young people can be steered away from crime, the financial savings to policing and the justice system will more than pay for the prevention programs, he said....

Forbes said he doesn't oppose crime prevention programs but doubts that the Youth PROMISE Act will weed out wasteful and ineffective spending.  "I guarantee you that with Bobby's bill, every group in America is going to say it's a prevention program," Forbes said.  "You're going to have hundreds of groups line up... because for most of those groups, this is about dollars."...

Earlier this month, the bill was approved, 17-14, by the House Judiciary Committee, with Forbes joining other Republican committee members to vote against it.  The vote came after the committee rejected Forbes' attempt to add his gang-sentencing plan to the legislation.

Forbes has argued that tougher sentencing laws are needed for gang members — including the younger members.  He proposed a so-called "gangbusters" bill that would make gang-related crimes of murder, violent assaults and kidnapping all federal crimes that could require sentences up to life in prison or, for murder, execution.

Forbes' bill would allow the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-old gang members as adults in federal court.  The measure passed the House in 2005 but failed in the Senate.  He has reintroduced it since then, but it has not progressed to another floor vote.

Tackling prevention by itself would bring nothing but frustration, Forbes said, whereas requiring harsh sentences for younger gang members would force them to turn on their older leaders, undermining the criminal operation.  "If you do not go after 16-, 17-year-old kids, what happens is the gang network will continue to let them do the dirty work," Forbes said.  "We're talking about hardened criminals who are killing people for no reasons at all.  I'm not saying we don't need prevention money.  What I'm saying is what this will do is miss the meanest of the mean and the toughest of the tough.... It will also put all our resources in one direction."

December 27, 2009 at 09:10 PM | Permalink


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Family therapy with a mother who is a heinous drug addict. Midnight basketball. Tutoring and imparting marketable skills.

Getting high every day. Making $100,000 a year as a 16 year old. Effing beautiful girls throwing themselves, several times a night. Skipping pesky rule bound school, because it wastes valuable time when more money could be made in a month than the teacher makes in a year. If someone offends, hold a pistol sideways, and blast away. There is a 1 in 100 chance the lawyer will do anything to you.

You decide. Dumbass.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 27, 2009 9:51:38 PM

The word, dumbass, is a lawyer term of art. It is meant only in the nicest way.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 27, 2009 9:59:53 PM

Rep. Scott might want to rethink saying things like "the research is absolutely clear [that man mins do not work]" since the one thing you can say about the "research" in this area is that it ISN'T clear at all one way or the other. There is evidence that targeted mandatories are successful at deterring crime while there is also evidence that blanket, willy-nilly application of mandatories for every offense from drugs to guns to child porn to bed-wetting don't work as well.

I love how the "empirical evidence" camp, who so love the post-Booker sentencing chaos created by their intellectual heros Thomas and Scalia, have theories with even LESS tested, scientific basis than their opposition.

Rep. Scott thinks by shouting louder that he has "the evidence" that will constitute an argument.

Instead of grandstanding for the press at the beginning of an election year, why doesn't Scott get his committee to vote on one of the several pending pieces of legislation that would equalize the crack/powder ratio?

A cynic might say that Rep. Scott's idiotic constituents are satisfied with platitudes about "prevention" and are too stupid to realize that it's Scott, and the rest of the Democratic Caucus, that are blocking any meaningful change to mandatory minimum policy. While we have about 500 jillion federal mandatory minimums on the books, 3/4 of those sentenced are sentenced for drug offenses. Of those offenses, nearly everyone agrees (including the Obama Justice Department) that the 100 to 1 ratio between the mandatory for crack and the mandatory for powder, should be eliminated. The US Sentencing Commission has written several reports, for over ten years, suggesting there is no basis for this law. Only Scott and his fellow Democrats in Congress can change this situation. The Republicans can no longer be blamed, the US Sentencing Commission cannot be blamed, the courts cannot be blamed, and DOJ cannot be blamed.

It's much easier for Scott to run his mouth about the failures of the system then to actually address the one obstacle in the way of crack/powder parity:

Himself and his fellow Democratic members of the House.

So 'scuse me if I chuckle at the musings of an absolute hypocrite like Scott who is more concerned about shoring up his constituency in an election year with empty rhetoric than actually doing anything about it.

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | Dec 28, 2009 12:52:10 PM

"...Scott ... contends that the public wants the attention shifted to prevention. "They're sick and tired of watching people shout simple-minded slogans and pass it off as crime policy."

If only it were true.

"The public" loves simple-minded slogans and typically responds to them with Pavlovian predictability.

Posted by: JohnK | Dec 28, 2009 12:54:40 PM

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