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June 22, 2014

New York Times editorial laments stalled federal sentencing reform

Today's New York Times has this lengthy editorial, headlined "Sentencing Reform Runs Aground," expressing justified concerning that bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform has not yet been enough to secure legislative action. Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform is one of the rare issues on which there has been bipartisan support in Congress and significant progress toward a legislative solution. Until recently, anyway.

Two bills, each with Republican and Democratic sponsors, were expected to come up for a vote by this summer — one that would reduce lengthy sentences for many low-level drug offenders and another that would give low-risk inmates credit toward early release if they participate in job-training and drug treatment programs. But progress on both bills has stalled, and congressional leaders who were once confident about their chances this year are now looking toward 2015, at the earliest.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of federal inmates — many of whom have already served years of unjustly long drug sentences — continue to sit in overstuffed prisons, wasting both their lives and taxpayer dollars at no demonstrable benefit to public safety....

So why the delay? One major factor has been resistance from members of the old guard, who refuse to let go of their tough-on-crime mind-set. In May, three senior Republican senators — Charles Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama — came out against the sentencing reductions, arguing that mandatory minimums are only used for the highest-level drug traffickers. This assertion is contradicted by data from the United States Sentencing Commission, which found that 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or low-level dealers.

Another factor was the Obama administration’s April announcement that it would consider clemency for hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates currently serving time under older, harsher drug laws. Republicans complained that this — along with other executive actions on criminal justice by Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. — took the wind out of reform’s sails.

But with the exception of some old-line prosecutors and resistant lawmakers, everyone still agrees on the need for extensive reform. The other branches of the federal government have begun to do their part: Federal judges across the country have spoken out against the mindlessness of mandatory minimums. The sentencing commission voted in April to reduce many drug sentencing guidelines. And the Justice Department under Mr. Holder has taken multiple steps to combat the harsh and often racially discriminatory effects of those laws.

The public is on board too. According to a recent Pew survey, 67 percent say the government should focus more on treating drug users than on prosecuting them.

Some members of Congress get it. On the right, the charge for reform has been led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Yet the prospect of reform has become more precarious, even as the need for it has become more urgent.

Judicial pronouncements and executive orders only go so far. It is long past time for Congress to do its job and change these outdated, ineffective and unjust laws.

June 22, 2014 at 09:54 AM | Permalink


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The reason nighing moves forward and the old guys drag their feet is this.

CVA. Is the most important element.. If they are going to get re elected they mustvappear tough on crime. Yeah, keep up the good work boys.

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Jun 22, 2014 6:06:43 PM

As we know, very few persons who hold power willingly give it up. You have to be a George Washington type--not too many of those around. Congress gave the United States Attorneys enormous power to charge crimes that carry mandatory minimum penalties. This is unbridled and unchecked power that is intoxicating. They like it. Who wouldn't? It's exciting; it's a power trip. It's a great attention-getter at parties. It massages the ego. They'll fight to the bitter end and pressure the Congress with the usual weak on crime stuff. They'll come up with all kinds of rationales--"we need mms to get to the higher ups--to put the bad guys away--get convictions--can't trust the soft-hearted judges" But when all is said and done, it's just the same old thing it's always been: the intoxicating exercise of raw, naked, unbridled power. Of course once they become defense attorneys (and a few do), they'll go on and on about the unfairness of it all. But then, there's nothing like a convert.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jun 22, 2014 7:14:29 PM

Mr. Levine, as a convert myself, I have to agree: well said indeed.

Posted by: anon | Jun 22, 2014 10:36:34 PM

Mr. Levine, if Bill Otis were here, he would challenge your assertions--I'm sure; but I'm persuaded.

Posted by: onlooker | Jun 22, 2014 10:48:03 PM

Mr. Levine

Im glad to know that there is someone else out there that sees clearly.

I agree 100% with you.

It amazes me that it just continues, decade after decade.

When I was 7 yrs old, I remember adults commenting, no its federal, they do what they want and spend money by the dump truck. Pretty much the same these days.

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Jun 23, 2014 8:07:51 AM

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