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.  

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