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May 17, 2016

Noting that different prosecutors have notably different opinions on the SRCA

ImagesThis lengthy new Daily Signal article, headlined "Is It Time for Criminal Justice Reform?  2 Law Enforcement Groups Are at Odds," details that the heads of the National District Attorneys Association and of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys have taken different positions on the leading statutory sentencing reform proposal in Congress. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

While the unusual coalition of President Barack Obama and conservative groups hold out hope for the chance at what they call the most meaningful reform to criminal sentencing laws in a generation, frontline law enforcement officials are debating what the changes would mean for their communities.

Steven Cook, whose organization represents more than 5,500 assistant United States attorneys, believes Congress’ attempts to reduce prison sentences for certain low-level offenders will “substantially harm” law enforcement’s ability to “dismantle and disrupt drug trafficking organizations.”

William Fitzpatrick, the president of the official body representing state-level district attorneys across the U.S., views the issue differently, recently writing to congressional leaders that a Senate plan to reduce sentences for drug crimes allows “lower level offenders a chance for redemption.”

Cook and Fitzpatrick are two veteran law enforcement officials with vastly different jobs, but they have outsized roles in a debate over criminal justice reform with high stakes for the people they represent — not to mention the thousands of offenders who could benefit from changes to sentencing laws.

Fitzpatrick made headlines late last month when he authored a letter — on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association — to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., expressing support for compromise legislation meant to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. That endorsement has encouraged other law enforcement groups to get on board, with both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Major County Sheriffs’ Association announcing their support last week....

But Cook, and his National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, remain opposed to the legislation, and he and the organization have the ear of still skeptical lawmakers like Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; and David Perdue, R-Ga.  “The notion we should save the American people money by releasing these repeat drug traffickers — and to take tools away from prosecutors needed to successfully prosecute them — is a breach of the fundamental responsibility that the federal government has to protect its citizens,” Cook told The Daily Signal.

Cook and Fitzpatrick know each other well, and have been in frequent communication about their positions on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, as the Senate’s legislation is known (although Cook says he was “very surprised” when Fitzpatrick endorsed the new bill).  Cook has served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Tennessee for the last 29 years. Fitzpatrick is the district attorney for Onondaga County in New York, a position he’s held for 24 years.

McConnell is ultimately responsible for deciding whether to allow the full Senate to vote on the bill.  In weighing his decision, McConnell is no doubt considering both sides of the argument communicated by Cook and Fitzpatrick.

As most compromises go, the legislation’s actual provisions are relatively modest.  The bill aims to reduce certain mandatory minimum prison sentences created in the 1980s and ’90s during the war on drugs, which are laws that require binding prison terms of a particular length, and designed to promote consistency in punishment.  Critics charge these laws have proven to be inflexible, and, by limiting judge’s discretion to rule on the specifics of a case, have led to unfair punishments for lesser offenders.

“The number one priority of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is the promotion of public safety,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a bill sponsor, told The Daily Signal.  “Our criminal justice system is undermined when punishment delivered by the government does not fit the crime.  Our bill better protects the American people by bringing balance back to federal sentencing.”

The bill, for example, would reduce the mandatory prison sentence required for drug offenders with two or more “serious violent felony” or “serious drug felony” convictions from life without parole, to 25 years. The bill’s authors adjusted this provision, and others, so that it does not allow violent offenders from being able to petition a judge for a retroactive early release.  “To say a third-time drug offender gets 25 years instead of life, is that going to impact public safety?” Fitzpatrick said. “Not in my judgment. If you are lucky, you get 75 years on planet Earth.  If you take a third of a person’s life away from him or her, that is not what I would call a slap on the wrist.  In this society, we can survive safely in giving someone 25 to 30 years as opposed to life.”...

Still, for people who view drug trafficking as an inherently violent crime, as Cook does, the reform would reduce the punishment for offenders who have done more than possess and use drugs. “We are not prosecuting drug users in federal court,” Cook said. “This whole notion of low-level nonviolent drug offenders is wrong because that’s not who is coming into federal prison.  We are dealing with dismantling large drug trafficking organizations.”...

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit advocating for sentencing reform, 92 percent of the 20,600 federal drug offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2015 did not play a leadership or management role in the offense, and nearly half had little or no prior criminal record.

Even so, Cook contends that prosecutors would lose a major leverage tool with weakened mandatory minimums, making it harder for them to get cooperation from defendants who would help them dismantle drug trafficking organizations.  “It’s absolutely right that it [mandatory minimums] encourage people to cooperate with law enforcement officials and identify others involved in a conspiracy,” Cook said.  “There are strong incentives for offenders to not help us identify other participants, and this is the only tool we’ve got.  These are not easy people to deal with. They understand one thing, and that is how long they will be in prison.”

Fitzpatrick counters that prosecutors still could effectively do their jobs with less severe mandatory minimum sentences.  “There will always be the give and take of plea bargaining and trying to get people to cooperate,” Fitzpatrick said.  “I don’t think this statute undermines that, not when high-level offenders will still get significant prison time.”

May 17, 2016 at 02:12 PM | Permalink


Cook doesnt have a clue. Most drug offenders in federal prison are 2-4 addicts that at times trade drugs or make runs for the ingredients to make it. This hardly counts as large drug rings or an organization. These guys that want to retain such gross sentences, like to use words like, terrorists drug organizations, cartels, drug rings.

Tom, Molly and Spot hardly constiture this. These people are nirmally so screwed up on drugs, I could do the investigations and successfully prosecute them. They have no resources, just a brain that is etched from over use of corrosive drugs.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | May 17, 2016 5:10:27 PM

The feds must face the music, anyone that qualifies with the flimsiest traces gets hammered with the mandatories. It actually pumps them up. The judge and Ausa are like Hans and Frans, we are here to Pump you up,

Seriously, I read not too long ago a guy was sentenced as as a ARmed career criminal, because there were 7 shotgun shells in a dresser he moved and then bought, sort if.

How about Begay and Gall. Anyone with minimal information should be able to convince McConnel the mandatories are being abused grossly.

Life for selling drugs because you are an addict and the Usa wont help you medically because your not rich as a rock star. Simply put.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | May 17, 2016 5:32:06 PM

It's not as if prosecutors lack power in the plea negotiation process. Even without mandatories, the guidelines are still probably ridiculous and 85% of federal judges don't have the stones to be only "advised" by the guidelines.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | May 17, 2016 6:25:05 PM

I'm really getting a bit impatient with the entire dialogue. How can we accept that we incarcerate 716 citizens per thousand while Canada only has the need to incarcerate 118 per thousand and France 98 citizens per thousand. Is our population more dangerous or are our laws, enforcement, charging and prosecution making us a nation of prisoners and former prisoners.

Not only are we losing our freedoms because of heavy handed criminal justice policies, but we are spending our treasure in order to deny our own freedom.

Since 1980 our spending on prisons has increased 2,000% and the prison population has increased 734% - This is just the incarceration component of the system. During the same period of time the population has only increased by 40%. Something is wrong with this formula that needs to be corrected - not just by nibbling around the edges.

Posted by: beth | May 18, 2016 2:10:05 AM

I am a Wharton School of Finance MBA, like Trump, and Vice President of the CAN-DO foundation. I am also a former Federal Drug prisoner. Mr Cook's position is self serving and absolutely NOT based on facts. I served my sentence among women who were in their VAST majority non violent, not carrying weapons and definitely not major drug dealers. In fact at least half of them were not accused of "dealing" drugs but of assisting a drug "conspiracy", mostly by doing relatively insignificant acts such a depositing money, picking people up at an airport or, in one case, translating phone calls for her boyfriend.. Many simply had the poor luck and bad judgement of being married to or related to someone involved with the drug trade. These peripheral, unimportant people often receive decades long sentences because they either do not wish to testify against loved ones or because they were so little involved that they have no information to bargain with. Some invent false accusations in their panic while the others rot in prison for the better part of their lives. The manner in which AUS Attorneys use guidelines and conspiracy laws AS MUCH as Mandatory Minimums often has the perverse result of giving plea deals and vastly reduced sentences to those MORE involved and MORE culpable while the small fry get the "kingpin" sentences. As to Cook's allegation that drug offenses are inherently violent...that's very convenient that way he can allege with a straight face that there are no non violent low level drug offenders in our Federal prisons! Let him go visit a Federal Women's prison where the point I am making will become evident after 30 minutes.

Posted by: Patricia Williams | May 18, 2016 8:44:40 AM

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