Senate Criminal Justice Reform Bill Would Create New Mandatory Minimum Sentences

by | Oct 6, 2015

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No wonder Americans have such disdain for Congress. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of nine United States senators joined together to introduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. In a press release heralding the bill’s introduction, sponsor Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and several of the bill’s cosponsors commend the bill as mitigating overly-harsh aspects of the US criminal justice system, including mandatory minimum sentences. Left unmentioned is the fact that the bill, should it become law, would actually create new mandatory minimum sentences while lengthening existing maximum sentences.

Say one thing and do another. The deception continues on Capitol Hill.

No doubt, most or all of the senators who signed on to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act are aware of shifts in public sentiment regarding incarceration and the drug war in which maximum minimums have played a prominent role. Seeking to appease public demands for reductions in government power while surreptitiously increasing that power is an old trick in the Washington, DC chicanery book.

Reading the press release announcing the bill, we see the senators promoting their bill as a fulfillment the public’s demand. Yet, reading the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, we see that the Senators are actually attempting to do something entirely different behind the scenes.

The press release’s description of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act paints the bill as rolling back rigid and excessive components of the US sentencing law:

The bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening and establishing new outlets for individuals with minimal non-felony criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law. The bill also reduces certain mandatory minimums, providing judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences, and preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins.

In addition to reducing prison terms for certain offenders through sentencing reform, qualifying inmates can earn reduced sentences through recidivism reduction programs outlined in the CORRECTIONS Act introduced by Cornyn and Whitehouse. The bill also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act and certain statutory reforms that address inequities in drug sentences.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act’s creation of new mandatory minimum sentences and lengthening of maximum sentences are left unmentioned. Via this omission, the press release conveys the false impression that the reforms contained in the bill are all in line with reducing the rigid harshness of the US judicial system.

The press release’s quotes from Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT) in particular contribute to the deception that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would boldly roll back mandatory minimum sentences.

Says Durbin:

This compromise represents more than three years of work on criminal justice reform. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done.

Says Lee:

Since my time as a federal prosecutor, I have been concerned that federal sentencing laws too often require punishments that just don’t fit the crime. These laws require many nonviolent offenders to spend years in prison, often with few opportunities for meaningful reform. Today’s legislation addresses both of these problems by reducing mandatory minimums and by expanding opportunities for programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism. I am grateful for the close collaboration with senators from both parties that has made this important bill a reality today.

Look at the actual bill and you see that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is far from the sweeping roll back of mandatory minimums suggested in the press release. In fact, the bill creates several new mandatory minimum sentences and extends the length of maximum sentences.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would create new mandatory minimum sentences for convictions related to:

  • domestic violence;
  • providing “controlled goods or services” to anyone named in a particular US Department of Treasury list, any organization the US designates as a “terrorist organization,” or a “state sponsor of terrorism;”
  • providing goods or services, “without a license or other written approval” from the US government, to anybody “in connection with a program or effort of a foreign country or foreign person to develop weapons of mass destruction;” and
  • providing “defense articles or defensive services, without a license or other written approval of the Department of State, to, or for the use of, a country subject to an arms embargo by the United States.”

Notably, much of the new mandatory minimums in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act are seemingly for the purpose of fighting the US government’s Global War on Terrorism. The proliferation of mandatory minimums through the last few decades found much of its justification in the war on drugs. As the US government is slowly being forced to give up on aspects of that war, it is building up its new liberties suppressing vehicle — the war on terrorism — using the previous war as the model for the new war. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is yet another part of this disturbing trend.

The US Department of Justice’s role in the war on terrorism is largely consumed with creating “terrorists” via entrapment or sting operations instead of actually finding real terrorists for prosecution. What a handy tool it will be for Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents to hang new mandatory minimum sentences over an individual alleged to have taken one action or made one comment that may be interpreted as a step toward aiding terrorism after months or years of a government employee or informant encouraging the individual to run afoul of US law.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act also increases the current 10-year maximum penalty to 15 years for violation of any of a slew of prohibitions related to obtaining, possessing, or transferring a gun or ammunition. Beyond putting people in prison for years for doing something that harms nobody, such sentences create an additional deleterious consequence for many criminal defendants. Long sentences for gun law violations are used by prosecutors as leverage against drug and other crime defendants. Thus prosecutors can pressure defendants to plead guilty instead of demanding a trial. If you make potential sentences long enough, guilty individuals will reluctantly accept excessive sentences and innocent individuals will fold in hopes of leniency in lieu of taking their chances in court.

While some people up against the US judicial system would benefit from some of the reforms in the bill, other individuals will be caught up in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act’s lengthening of prison sentences.

Cosponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) proclaims in the press release that the bill “marks a new chapter in criminal justice reform.” Instead, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is more of the same.

Author

  • Adam Dick

    Adam worked from 2003 through 2013 as a legislative aide for Rep. Ron Paul. Previously, he was a member of the Wisconsin State Board of Elections, a co-manager of Ed Thompson's 2002 Wisconsin governor campaign, and a lawyer in New York and Connecticut.