Sentencing Reforms Make Progress, But Without Prosecutors’ Support

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s push to change stiff sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders moved forward on some fronts last week—but not without criticism.

The era of mandatory minimum sentences—a legal tool commonly associated with the “war on drugs”—could be ending.

In another step in the Obama administration’s effort to reduce what it sees as overly long mandatory sentences for drug crimes, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced last week that the Justice Department is looking to commute the sentences of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders still serving prison time due to harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

With an eye toward reducing overcrowding in federal prisons, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in August that the Department of Justice would no longer charge low-level drug offenders who aren’t linked to gangs or large drug rings with crimes that would carry strict mandatory sentences. In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people convicted of crack cocaine charges before a 2010 law eased sentencing guidelines. All eight had already spent at least 15 years in prison.

In Congress, a legislative effort that has Holder’s backing made progress last week. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes by half. While activists mostly backed the changes, at least one legal association took the opportunity to criticize Holder’s plan. More details:

Advocacy groups back reform, but… While Families Against Mandatory Minimums ultimately gave its approval to the Senate bill, it criticized additions introduced during the committee process—including a new mandatory minimum for cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse, submitted by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). “Although FAMM would prefer the total repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, this bill is a necessary compromise that will help address many of the drivers of our exploding prison populations,” said group President Julie Stewart. “The reform package is bipartisan, reasonable, and will save taxpayers billions of dollars by locking up fewer nonviolent drug offenders for shorter periods of time. It also focuses on over-criminalization, a monster that no one has been able to get a handle on, but one that must be brought under control.” The American Civil Liberties Union had a similar stance, stating that while it disagrees with Grassley’s additions, “the Smarter Sentencing Act is a much-needed next step toward a fairer criminal justice system.”

U.S. attorneys disagree with the boss: Not everyone thinks mandatory minimums should be softened. Last week, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA)—which represents prosecutors who report to Holder—announced its opposition to the proposal, saying that current sentencing laws have done much to reduce crime. “The current system of mandatory minimum penalties is the cornerstone in the ability of assistant United States attorneys and federal law enforcement agents to infiltrate and dismantle large-scale drug trafficking organizations and take violent armed career criminals off the streets,” NAAUSA President Robert Gay Guthrie wrote in a letter [PDF] delivered to Holder. The association argues that Congress would be jumping the gun to pass a law without waiting to see the results of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s review of guideline changes, expected to be completed in November. NAAUSA also advises that before Congress considers legislation easing mandatory minimums, there should be a study on the potential impact the change would have on crime.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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