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August 1, 2013

Senators Durbin and Lee come together to introduce "Smarter Sentencing Act"

Lee official_photoAs reported via this press release from the offices of Senator Dick Durbin, another notable pair of Senators from the two parties have put aside other differences to come together to support and promote federal sentencing reform.  (Since the press release comes from Senator Durbin's office, I have Senator Lee's picture posted.)   Here are the basics:

With federal prison populations skyrocketing and nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, to modernize our drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent offenses. Making these incremental and targeted changes could save taxpayers billions in the first years of enactment.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”

“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said. “By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”

The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, in large part due to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster deep distrust of the criminal justice system.

This large increase in prison populations has also put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts inmates and guards at risk. There is more than 50 percent overcrowding at high-security facilities. This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing inmates. It currently costs nearly $30,000 to house just one federal inmate for a year. There are currently more than 219,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half of them serving sentences for drug offenses.

The bipartisan Durbin-Lee-Leahy bill is an incremental approach that does not abolish any mandatory sentences. Rather, it takes a studied and modest step in modernizing drug sentencing policy by:

• Modestly expanding the existing federal “safety valve”....

• Promoting sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act: The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which was authored by Senator Durbin and unanimously passed the Senate before it was signed into law – reduced a decades-long sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Unfortunately, because of the timing of their sentences, some individuals are still serving far-too-lengthy sentences that Congress has already determined are unjust and racially disparate. The Smarter Sentencing Act allows certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law....

• Increasing individualized review for certain drug sentences: The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply. The Act does not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences and does not lower the maximum sentences for these offenses....

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the Sentencing Project, Open Society Policy Center, the American Bar Association, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Constitution Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Brennan Center for Justice, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

I am going to need to see the text of this new bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act before opining about whether it is a terrific reform proposal or just a very good one. But, even without seeing the specifics, I can note and praise the willingness and ability for these Senators, who likely do not agree on too many issues, coming together to give effect to their shared view that the federal sentencing system need to be made smarter.

Some recent and older related posts about the new federal politics of sentencing:

August 1, 2013 at 03:20 PM | Permalink


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Doug, please where is the Beef...Show us, we are hungry for meaningful reform that will apply to most all federal inmates, not just the fairy tale type that doesn't exist..

Thanks Doug

Its going to have to bea lot more than an echo from what Paul introduced, to do anything..But yes, it is encourageing that someone is willing to stick their nose out of hiding on Reform...

Posted by: MidWest Guy | Aug 1, 2013 3:33:29 PM

I don't know much of anything. Can someone tell me if this is substantively different than the recent proposal to do away with mandatory minimums, or give judge discretion to? Specifically, is this just that same bill, but without any application to sex offenders?

Posted by: Roberta | Aug 1, 2013 3:33:57 PM

Will this compete with or replace the proposed Justice Safety Valve Act?

Posted by: Tara | Aug 1, 2013 3:55:54 PM

Democrats = shrewd.

Republicans = suckers.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 1, 2013 5:00:18 PM

I need to see the details. As a theoretical concept, I do not have a problem with Congress going statute by statute and altering the range of punishment for any offense. I might disagree with their approach to a particular statute (e.g. if they were to propose reducing the minimum punishment for murder to a fine), but as a matter of how laws should be written, I would not have a problem.

As I have noted elsewhere, I believe that it is dishonest and improper to establish mandatory minimums in one statute and then have a different statute that says that a judge has discretion to disregard the statute establishing a mandatory minimum.

Posted by: tmm | Aug 1, 2013 5:39:07 PM

'Democrats = shrewd.

Republicans = suckers.'

Bill Otis = cynical asshole

Posted by: Fran | Aug 1, 2013 6:53:04 PM

Gads, you know life is getting tough when I can't even get away with complimenting the Democrats.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 1, 2013 7:01:58 PM

Fran, Bill Otis is a brilliant and honorable contributor to this forum. Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, I respect his reasoning and insight. Your epithet was rude and absolutely uncalled for. Please try to be civil on this forum.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Aug 1, 2013 7:08:31 PM

Fran, I concur fully with Mr. Levine's point. Please address the merits of the arguments themselves, not the merits of the persons making them.

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Aug 1, 2013 7:13:47 PM

Fran, I frequently disagree with Mr. Otis, without launching an ad hominem attack. You owe Mr. Otis an apology.

Posted by: onlooker | Aug 1, 2013 7:15:21 PM

If I might stand aside for the moment from Fran's latest analytical contribution, I would note my agreement in toto with tmm. Let Congress vote statute by statute on eliminating mandatory minimums for each given offense to which they now apply. This is a step toward both accountability and visibility. It makes Congress more accountable because it lets the public see specifically what offenses Congress thinks do not warrant any sentencing floor, ever; and it makes the action more visible by avoiding what, as tmm correctly notes, the present proposal would do: Leave the MM's on the books as written, while slipping in the quiet (but controlling) footnote, "Oh, we don't really mean it."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 1, 2013 7:19:31 PM

Michael R. Levine, Dave from Texas and onlooker --

Thank you, gentlemen (or gentlemen and lady, if onlooker is a lady).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 1, 2013 7:26:29 PM

sorry gentlemen, apart from whatever sympathetic personal feelings you may feel for your friend Bill the comment still stands

Posted by: Fran | Aug 1, 2013 8:00:24 PM

i have to agree Fran that was uncalled for!

but this!

"Let Congress vote statute by statute on eliminating mandatory minimums for each given offense to which they now apply."

It's a total waste of time. Considering the total fuckup's there now. Going by their current reccord they should complete the rewrite of the first statue some time in the 23rd century!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 1, 2013 10:03:29 PM

rodsmith --

Thanks. As to Congress's wasting time -- given the alternatives, that would be one of the less undesirable outcomes.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 1, 2013 10:45:01 PM


I agree with Michael Levine, onlooker and Dave from Texas. Please remove the word cynical! Oh, and the 2nd word too. (JK).

I agree with Bill and anything that currently distracts Congress from doing anything is a worthy accomplishment

Posted by: albeed | Aug 1, 2013 11:07:56 PM

albeed --

And thanks to you as well (although on some days I might cop a plea to a lesser degree of "cynical").

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 2, 2013 12:31:34 AM

LOL have to give you that one bill. Anything that distracts those screwups these days can only be a good thing!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 2, 2013 11:05:25 AM

Not long ago I was a bill Otis attacker. But he doesn't get personal. He goes after the topic.
I got tired of reviewing my poor comments an am trying to do a better job of keeping on task.
Mr articulate I am not. Bill is and can say more in 2 sentences than my rambling in 2 paragraphs. One doesn't have to agree, but respectful, yes.
If I can improve, most can.

Posted by: MidWestguy | Aug 2, 2013 10:12:11 PM

HR 3382 Smarter Sentencing Act 2013. S. 1410

Having been a parole/probation officer for 30 years, I strongly support the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 Introduced by Richard Durbin and Mike Lee. I have supervised felons for many years both in and out of prison and jail. The criminally lengthy federal sentencing does nothing to rehabilitate offenders. In many cases most drug offenders are merely drug addicts that are trying to support their habit by transporting drugs and by other crimes. Putting a person on probation is 100% more effective and about 95% less expensive. Warehousing criminals for years and years is bankrupting the USA! Offenders could receive much more humane and cost effective treatment in the community and with shorter sentences. We are becoming (if not already become) the number 1 jailer in the world. What does this say for a supposedly free country? This law takes father’s away from their son’s & daughters creating more juvenile crimes and perpetuating more criminal activity. A child can’t understand why their father has deserted them for all their formative years, thus causing them to become troubled juveniles. I’ve worked in a state that went from indeterminate sentencing to determinate sentencing for 30 years and I have seen the negative effect it has on our laws. Give back the ability for the criminal justice system to use its professionalism in sentencing. Give the probation officer who knows the offender very well, the ability to make recommendations to the judge. Please support the Smarter Sentencing Act and/or S. 1410 that is coming up this next week. Please pass this on to others. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Posted by: K. Stevens | Dec 15, 2013 4:24:21 PM

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