Sentencing

Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Major Sentencing Reforms

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Senate Judiciary Committee

Today, by a vote of 13 to 5, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved what the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) calls "the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades." The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) last July, would cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for some drug offenses, make the reduced crack penalties enacted in 2010 retroactive, and expand the category of defendants eligible for sentencing below the mandatory minimums. "The Smarter Sentencing Act is the most significant piece of criminal justice reform to make it to the Senate floor in several years," says Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office.

The Durbin-Lee bill does not go as far as the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced last March by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Leahy (who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee). That bill would have made mandatory minimums effectively optional by alllowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice. The Smarter Sentencing Act is nevertheless a big improvement. The crack provision alone could free thousands of prisoners serving sentences that almost everyone now concedes are excessively long. It would dramatically reduce the penalties for certain nonviolent drug offenses, changing 20-year, 10-year, and five-year mandatory minimums to 10 years, five years, and two years, respectively. It would allow more nonviolent offenders to escape mandatory minimums entirely by loosening the criteria for the "safety valve," allowing two criminal background points instead of just one.

"Extreme, one-size-fits-all sentencing has caused our federal prison population to balloon out of control," says the ACLU's Murphy, "and it's time to change these laws that destroy lives and waste taxpayer dollars." DPA notes that the Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by "a strange bedfellows group of senators," including Durbin, Lee, Paul, Leahy, Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). "The tide has turned against punitive drug policies that destroy lives and tear families apart," says Bill Piper, DPA's director of national affairs. "From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites, there's now consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers."

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  1. Call me a cynic, but what do you want to bet Reid never lets it come to a vote. I think there are too many interests against this. And Reid doesn’t want to force Democratic Senators to vote against it much less the Black Jesus to have to veto it.

    1. What does he have to lose? No one ever really calls him on these stunts.

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      1. Sigh. Doesn’t obnoxiousness get boring eventually?

        1. Ask the guy who said “Black Jesus.”

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  2. What a victory that is. We’ll throw you in jail for less time than we used to when you make a choice we don’t like. That’s like a mugger saying, “Don’t worry. I’m a good guy. I’ll only take half the money in your wallet this time.”

    1. I agree. At least they’re reducing the penalties rather than increasing them. Baby steps I suppose…

      1. And one more baby step today

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/…..story.html

    2. It’s pretty sad that this is what passes for “major” reform.

  3. “The Durbin-Lee bill does not go as far as the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced last March by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Leahy (who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee). That bill would have made mandatory minimums effectively optional by alllowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice.”

    In the interest of justice, remove ALL laws prohibiting drugs and release those convicted on those previous charges.

    Vices are not crimes.

  4. Richard Wershe Jr is serving a LIFE sentence for one *non-violent* drug charge he received as a minor (17 years old) back in May of 1987. Three years prior Rick was recruited by Federal agents and Detroit police as a teenage undercover informant in Detroit’s dangerous drug underworld. Rick’s release is long overdue!!

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  5. I am, at heart, in league with the principle that all drugs should be legalized. Having said that, any step toward removing these draconian mandatory minimums is better than leaving them in place.

  6. Who were the five assholes who voted against it?

    1. Here’s a guess…

      Cornyn
      Sessions
      Hatch
      Graham
      Grassley

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  9. I’m glad there’s a rapidly building consensus against over-criminalization and over-incarceration. But sometimes it seems a little self-congratulatory, almost smug, that people have finally started to realize after decades of ripping apart families and communities that maybe it’s bad to create criminals over drug possession.

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