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June 2, 2013

Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform

ChafAs regular readers know, I have been excited and heartened to see a number of notable Republican leaders speak out in favor of state sentencing reforms in the last few years.  Significant sentencing reform efforts at the state level have gotten a real boost from GOP governors like Chris Christie, Nathan Deal, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich.  Other high-profile folks on that side of the aisle ranging from Newt Gingrich to Ed Meese to David Keene to Grover Norquist have also been vocal in support of cost-saving sentencing reform efforts.  But this right-side movement has not gotten much attention or traction at the federal level, save for the recent work of Sentator Rand Paul advocating for reform of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

Consequently, it is now great to see that another notable GOP elected official is starting to talk up the need and opportunity for effective sentencing reforms at the federal level.  Specifically, as detailed in this lengthy new article in The Salt Lake Tribune, GOP representative Jason Chffetz is now among the Republican stalwarts urging federal sentencing reform. The article is headlined " Chaffetz unveils prison program to reduce recidivism and lower crime: Plan would put low-risk inmates in halfway houses, increase use of ankle bracelets," and here are excerpts:

Hoping to shrink the glut of low-risk federal inmates consuming tax dollars in prison, Rep. Jason Chaffetz is about to unveil a post-sentencing reform bill that would allow drug offenders and others to earn early release into halfway houses, home confinement and ankle-bracelet monitoring.

Quietly, the Utah Republican has worked Washington’s back channels for 18 months to forge bipartisan support. He insists the program — vetted by the Heritage Foundation and the ACLU — would reduce recidivism, lower crime rates and rein in spending on the federal prison system.

“There’s some really good work being done by states that we ought to learn from,” Chaffetz told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board this week. “It’s a financial imperative, it’s a moral imperative — it just makes a lot of sense.”

The challenge, Chaffetz concedes, is assuring the political right the measure isn’t soft on crime, while convincing the left it goes far enough — short of unwinding mandatory minimum sentences. “The risk, if there is with this, is the over-simplification,” the congressman said, bemoaning bumper-sticker politics. “It does take some explanation. It does take an adult conversation to say, ‘folks, we can do this.’ ”

The proposal marks a pivot for Chaffetz, whose more partisan turns with conservative media include talk of impeaching President Barack Obama regarding recent investigations, including the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya....

The program would work by dividing federal prisoners into high, moderate or low risks of recidivism. They would be judged by level of engagement in existing programs, holding prison jobs and participation in faith-based services and educational courses.

Low-risk inmates would earn 30 days credit per month, moderate would notch 15 days, while high-risk convicts could get eight days worth of credit. Only low-risk prisoners would be eligible for pre-release custody into a halfway house, home confinement or ankle-bracelet program. Prisoners convicted of violent felonies, terrorism, rape or a sex offense against a minor would not be considered. Neither would undocumented immigrants, an “albatross” and too touchy a topic, Chaffetz says.

The measure neither reduces minimum sentence time nor impacts Truth in Sentencing requirements. That’s because 85 percent of each federal sentence still would be completed as mandated — though some of it could be outside the prison walls....

Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney, remembers how inflexible the federal system seemed when a young man “who had a bad weekend” with drugs was slapped with a 35-year minimum sentence.

Then there is Utah music producer Weldon Angelos, who had no prior criminal record and now is considered a casualty of the war on drugs. Convicted in 2003 while he was in his early 20s of selling small amounts of marijuana — a witness claimed he had a gun on his side — Angelos was sentenced to 55 years under federal minimums. Cassell, the judge in the case hamstrung by the law, urged President George W. Bush to commute the sentence, calling it “unjust, cruel and irrational.”...

“We’ve got to fix the front end,” said Mary Price, vice president of the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which is still reviewing the Chaffetz bill. “We’re still pouring thousands of people into prison every year for sentences that are frankly too long.”

Karen McCreary, executive director of ACLU of Utah, says she too would like to see reform to mandatory minimums but is intrigued by Chaffetz’ bill. “The drug wars have made our system so full, so this is a positive,” McCreary said. “It seems like a good step in the right direction.”...

The Chaffetz proposal is modeled partly on Texas, which became the first state to complete a so-called “justice reinvestment” process, saving the state $1.5 billion in construction costs and $340 million in averted operating costs.

Tolman told the editorial board it’s time the feds learned effective prison models from states like Texas. “We’ve always been arrogant and felt that we can do things better,” Tolman said. “Either we’re so large and cumbersome that we can’t, or we’re so ignorant and stubborn that we won’t.”

Some recent and older related posts:

June 2, 2013 at 08:41 AM | Permalink


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"Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney, remembers how inflexible the federal system seemed when a young man 'who had a bad weekend' with drugs was slapped with a 35-year minimum sentence."

This reveals as much as saying that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev "had a bad weekend."

As long as specifics of what the criminal actually did are being intentionally hidden with a phrase like that, no one in his right mind is going to trust the account.

When you've got a good argument, you spell it out. When you don't, you use fuzzy language so no one can figure out what's actually going on.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 2, 2013 9:07:56 AM

As much as it pains me to say this, good for the Tea Party Republicans Rand Paul and Jason Chaffetz who are trying to tackle this issue. They are showing way more leadership than the Democrats.

Posted by: PDB | Jun 2, 2013 10:50:30 AM

Former U.S. Senator James Webb (R. Va.) started this discussion by introducing legislation that would have created a Blue Ribbon panel to review the entire criminal justice and prison systems from top to bottom. Unfortunately, his Bill was not enacted by congress, before his single term ended. Webb's analysis was simple. The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at 5 times the rate found in our peer First World countries. Eitehr Americans are 5 times more criminally minded than their pers in the rest of the world, or there is something profoundly wrong with the American system of criminal justice and incarceration. Yes, it really is that simple.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 2, 2013 2:00:04 PM

Jim Gormley --

"Eitehr Americans are 5 times more criminally minded than their pers in the rest of the world, or there is something profoundly wrong with the American system of criminal justice and incarceration. Yes, it really is that simple."

Or Americans are more demographically diverse, or Americans have a different legal and cultural history, or Americans are less tolerant of anti-social behavior, or American imprisonment is more efficacious, or Americans are more serious about reducing the crime rate...........

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 2, 2013 4:41:19 PM

J. Gormley,

In 2010, "Most industrialized countries had homicide rates below the 2.5 mark."
In 2011, the homicide rate excluding minorities in the

U.S. is 2.0 (1.98),
Asia is 3.1,
Europe is 3.5 ;

with minorities,
U.S. is 4.2,
Africa is 17.0.

(UNODC murder rates most recent year) http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/crime/Homicide_statistics2012.xls

What do you make of this?

Posted by: Adamakis | Jun 2, 2013 9:06:30 PM

Fiscally conservative voters are more and more willing to examine the cost of incarceration. That is just a fact. Those lobbying hardest against a new look at federal sentencing are those government workers whose jobs depend prolific prosecution and incarceration. The question is - can we afford them?

Posted by: beth | Jun 2, 2013 11:16:05 PM

It would be a good to get this passed.. But, I think it will be 3-5 yrs before much of anything gets passed with this Congress.

Simply too eager to disagree and vote down the other parties efforts.. That and worried about getting re-elected, is most important..

Sad, but true..

Posted by: MidWest Guy | Jun 3, 2013 11:06:37 AM

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