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September 1, 2015

Previewing the latest (and most important) bipartisan federal statutory sentencing reform effort in Congress

ImagesAs regular readers know, September is the month that a (long-forecast) important new federal sentencing reform bill has become likely to emerge from the US Senate.  This new Daily Signal article, headlined "Bipartisan Group of Senators Set to Announce Deal to Reduce Prison Population," which reports that this bill is going to be unveiled a week from today, provides an account of what we can expect to see in this bill.  Here are excerpts:

Soon after lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, a bipartisan group of members on the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to announce a deal meant to relieve the overcrowded federal prison population.

The bill, which is still being written and near completion — according to Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley — would give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders of certain nonviolent drug crimes and let well-behaved inmates earn time off their prison terms.

“They want to announce a deal as soon as they get back, but they just aren’t quite there yet,” says Conn Carroll, the communications director for Sen. Mike Lee, a committee member and leading reform advocate. “Let’s just say it’s first and goal on the one, everyone thinks we’ll score, we just don’t know when,” Carroll continued.

The legislation, the result of months of negotiations, will likely incorporate policies from previously introduced legislation in both houses of Congress.

The judiciary committee’s compromise bill is not expected to include reductions to mandatory minimums that are blamed for mass incarceration. Mandatory minimums require binding prison terms of a particular length and prevent judges from using their discretion to apply punishment. But the legislation is expected to give judges some leeway in sentencing drug offenders....

A new Pew study, using data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, reveals that there are more than 207,000 inmates in federal prisons, and 95,000 of those inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses — up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980.

The jump in the number of inmates has cost a lot of money. From 1980 to 2013, federal prison spending increased 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion. According to the study, prison spending now represents one of every four dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department. The report says growth of the prison population, and the longer drug sentences, can be pinned on a tough-on-crime mentality that dominated the 1980s.

Reform advocates say these policies — such as laws passed by Congress enacting mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10, or 20 years for drug offenders, and abolishing parole for federal offenders — have outlived their usefulness and need to be revised.

“The question really boils down to, has Sen. Grassley come to recognize mandatory minimums are a policy failure?” says Alison Holcomb, the director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “Whether the bill is worth all the time and effort of the negotiations depends on a large part to the answer to that question.”

Grassley, as the judiciary committee chair, is the gatekeeper of the talks. Experts such as Holcomb say Grassley is opposed to across-the-board repeal of mandatory minimum sentences. “The real question of this bill is, how far can Grassley go?” says Molly Gill, the government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit. “There’s a lot of pressure to do something significant. Is Grassley’s definition of significant close to everyone else’s? There becomes a certain point where you ask, is this real reform?”

Though Grassley’s office won’t share the exact details, the bill is expected to address a “safety valve” law that’s supposed to keep people from receiving unfair sentences.

Under the law, a federal drug offender can avoid a mandatory minimum sentence if he passes a five-part “safety valve” test. A convicted felon can be sentenced below a mandatory minimum if he was not a drug leader or “king pin,” he did not use or possess a gun during the offense, the offense is nonviolent, he was truthful with the government, and he has little or no other criminal activity on his record.

Reform advocates argue that even the most minor criminal history, such as being convicted for possessing a small amount of marijuana as a juvenile, can make an offender ineligible for the safety valve exception. The Senate Judiciary Committee bill may make the criminal record aspect of the safety valve more forgiving. It may also create a new loophole to get around mandatory minimums.

In addition, the legislation will include elements of a separate bill, the Corrections Act, authored by two senators of the judiciary committee: John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

That bill would allow certain well-behaved prisoners to earn time off their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs such as drug counseling and vocational training. The judiciary committee bill won’t be as comprehensive as the House’s SAFE Justice Act, sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., which would narrow the range of offenders that mandatory minimums apply to. Some members, like Grassley, think that reform plan is too far-reaching.

“Although there is clearly bipartisan support for a number of these proposals, [this] is a difficult issue,” says John Malcolm, the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. “Some believe our current sentencing regime is unfair and the pendulum has swung too far in terms of imposing harsh sentences,” Malcolm continued. “Others believe increased incarceration and harsh sentences have taken some very dangerous people off of the streets. I remain cautiously optimistic there is some ‘sweet spot’ where both sides can compromise.”

Whatever the final product looks like, all sides are optimistic that Congress will give Obama a criminal justice reform bill to sign this year — because too many people are waiting. “The American criminal justice system has gotten has so far out of whack, with far too many people behind bars for too high a price,” Holcomb said. “The cold hard fact that people across the aisle can agree on is that America is better than this.”

I am pleased that some key details of the sentencing reform bill most likely to get to Prez Obama's desk are emerging, and I am not surprised that Senator Grassley is more interested in pursuing expanded exceptions to current federal mandatory minimums rather than across the board cuts to any current mandatory minimum. At the same time, I am concerned (but again not suprised) that advocates of federal sentencing reform are worried that this latest bill which has Senator Grassley's blessing is not going to be as far-reaching or impactful as other bills that have been making the rounds.

As a general matter, I favor a federal sentencing world without any crude and strict mandatory minimums terms for any non-violent crimes. But, especially now that we have had two-plus years of talk about statutory sentencing reform and nothing at all that has made it through Congress, I am hopeful all reform advocates will get on-board with whatever comes out of the Senate later this month. Especially with growing talk about violent crime increases in some cities and with sound-bite presidential campaigns now dominating the broader political conversation, I think the window for any meaningful federal sentencing reforms emerging from Congress is already starting to close. If visions of the "best" or even the "really good" prompt criticisms of any bill that has a real chance of passage, we could well end up with no bill making it through Congress at all.

Some prior related posts:

September 1, 2015 at 10:45 AM | Permalink

Comments

See the NY Times article referenced in the posting, "Guns, gangs, ganja, going after police ... are there obvious lessons from 2015 homicide spikes?"

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 1, 2015 4:37:34 PM

It's very possible that the alternative to a modest sentencing reform bill is no reform bill at all.

Posted by: Jeremy | Sep 2, 2015 10:17:02 AM

What the hell. The copued info from above is toally useless.

Under the law, a federal drug offender can avoid a mandatory minimum sentence if he passes a five-part “safety valve” test. A convicted felon can be sentenced below a mandatory minimum if he was not a drug leader or “king pin,” he did not use or possess a gun during the offense, the offense is nonviolent, he was truthful with the government, and he has little or no other criminal activity on his record.

The worst mandatories are for repeat offenders. Everyone knows that offenders are addicts. They really dont get treatment while in the slammer.they lift weights and play softball. Not really addressing the root cause.

Their bill will suck. If Im wrong I will retract. But Im not.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Sep 2, 2015 5:55:32 PM

Of course, the perspective of the author of the article can be found in the sentence asserting that mandatory minimums limit a judge's discretion. Yes, but only in the sense that any sentencing law narrows a judge's discretion. A judge only has the authority to give a sentence within the sentencing range permitted by law. Limits on the maximum sentence also limit a judges discretion, but you rarely see any article talking about how such maximum reduce judicial discretion.

The proper question is what punishment options should be on the table for specific offenses. There are certain offenses -- murder, for example, in which an inmate not being eligible for probation and having to serve a minimum sentence -- makes perfectly logical sense regardless of any potential unique circumstances of the case. Such circumstances (when actually mitigating the appropriate punishment) merely dictate a sentence near the bottom of the range with most offenders getting substantially more than the minimum.

Posted by: tmm | Sep 5, 2015 9:47:28 AM

thank goodness for the 5 part safety valve.... many of the sentences that have been doled out are very cruel.

Posted by: bill burke | Sep 18, 2015 2:53:21 PM

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