Tag: mandatory minimum sentences

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act Is a Compromise, but a Pretty Good One

Last week a bipartisan group of senators, led by conservative Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.

The bill clearly represents a compromise between criminal justice reformers and more conservative law-and-order legislators, but the aggregate effect on the criminal justice system would be a substantial improvement.

On the positive side, the bill reduces several mandatory minimums relating to non-violent drug and firearm offenses (notably reducing the “three strikes” life sentence to 25 years), adds several safety valves to allow judges to adjust the penalties for certain non-violent offenses, and in many cases works retroactively to lower the excessive sentences of those already convicted of the relevant crimes.  Further, the bill would require the federal government to compile and publish a database of all federal crimes, their elements, and their potential penalties.  In addition, the bill would restrict the use of solitary confinement on juvenile offenders, create a new system for assessing the risk level of federal prisoners, among several other corrections changes.

On the other hand, the bill creates brand new federal mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic violence crimes that result in death and for providing prohibited support to terrorist organizations. It’s unclear why legislators feel that terrorism suspects are treated too leniently by the current sentencing structure, and taking discretion away from judges to impose sentences based on the particular facts of the cases before them is a step back.  Also on the negative side, the bill increases the mandatory minimum for felons caught in possession of a firearm from 10 to 15 years.  There are nearly 6 million convicted felons in the United States, a great many of them having been convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Once again, it is unclear why legislators, rather than judges and juries, should determine the proper punishment for a felon who is caught with a firearm, or why the current 10 year mandatory prison sentence is considered insufficient.

President Obama Announces Drug Sentence Commutations

Today President Obama announced that 46 non-violent drug offenders will have their sentences commuted and be released this year.  The announcement comes ahead of President Obama’s speech on sentencing reform later this week from a prison in Oklahoma.

The vast majority of the offenders were convicted of cocaine offenses, along with a handful of marijuana cases and some general “controlled substance” violations.  The lowest initial sentence among the 46 was 15 years, while several received life sentences.  In issuing the commutations the White House noted that, due to recent sentencing reforms, these sentences are out of step with the sentences the offenders would receive for the same violations today:

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

The list of recipients, along with their offenses, can be found here.  

Obama’s ‘New’ Drug Strategy

Ho-hum. Another administration, another “comprehensive plan to combat drug abuse, putting the focus on prevention and treatment strategies.” This one “calls for a 15 percent reduction in youth drug use, a 10 percent decrease in drugged driving, and a 15 percent reduction in overall drug-related deaths by 2015.” It involves more central planning – “ the creation of a community-based national prevention system” – more taxpayers’ money – “an expanded array of intervention-oriented treatment programs” – and more nannyism – “a push to screen patients early for signs of substance abuse, even during routine appointments, and the expansion of prescription-drug monitoring programs.” And don’t forget the ever-popular, ever-futile “more international cooperation in disrupting the flow of drugs and money.” Let’s write down those percentage goals, modest as they are, and see how many of them get accomplished.

As it happens, I had a chance to meet with drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and his top aides last year, as part of a series of outreach meetings as the new team planned its strategy. It doesn’t look like my advice was taken. Of course, I probably didn’t help my case by noting that our last three presidents have acknowledged using illegal drugs, and it is just incomprehensible to me how they can morally justify arresting other people for doing the same thing they did. Do they think that they would have been better off if they had been arrested and incarcerated for their youthful drug use? Do they think the country would have been better off if they had been arrested and incarcerated? If not, how do they justify punishing others?

I then suggested that they pursue the policies recommended by Timothy Lynch and myself in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers:

● repeal the Controlled Substances Act of 1970,

● repeal the federal mandatory minimum sentences and the federal sentencing guidelines,

● direct the administration not to interfere with the implementation of state initiatives that allow for the medical use of marijuana, and

● shut down the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Suspecting that the administration despite being headed a young president who in 2004 had declared the war on drugs an “utter failure” and advocated the decriminalization of marijuana, would not adopt my proposals, I went on to recommend a few mildly ameliorative reforms: stop federal lobbying in state initiative campaigns, stop federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries and other interference with state policy choices, and stop the Pentagon from giving military equipment to local police forces.

I must admit, though, that the other think tank analysts at the meeting, both liberal and conservative, offered the sorts of proposals for more social workers and more transition programs and more doctors that seem to have ended up in the “new” proposal. Perhaps I should have come up with a couple of proposals that would have cost more money rather than less.