Sentencing Reform

Chuck Grassley's Demands Make Sentencing Reform Weaker

At the insistence of the powerful senator, a new bill shortens fewer sentences and lengthens others.

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Senate Judiciary Committee

Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate reportedly have reached agreement on a package of criminal justice reforms that they plan to unveil today, including shorter sentences for some drug offenders and a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. Since the proposed legislation is supported by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), an unreconstructed drug warrior and fan of mandatory minimum sentences, you can be sure it does not go as far as it should and includes elements that are hard to swallow. But on balance it sounds like a step in the right direction.

"It's not fair to characterize it as a sweeping overhaul," an unnamed "congressional aide" told The Washington Post. "It is actually much less than what the advocates have been hoping for." Another unnamed source, who works for "one of the most prominent right-leaning groups involved in criminal justice reform," described the bill as "more than you think, but probably not as much as people will want."

According to MSNBC's Ari Melber, the proposal would "end the federal 'three strikes' rule." Presumably that refers to the mandatory life sentence for people convicted of three drug offenses, as opposed to the mandatory life sentence for people convicted of two "serious violent felonies" plus a "serious drug offense." The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) last February, would change the former sentence to a 25-year term. 

Politico reports that the new bill "give judges more discretion to override a mandatory minimum," which may refer to expansion of the "safety valve" for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, another element of the Smarter Sentencing Act. Melber says the package would "limit the use of mandatory 10-year sentences for offenders who have not committed violent or major felonies." That sounds like a watered-down version of yet another Smarter Sentencing Act provision, which would have cut the five-, 10-, and 20-year mandatory minimums for drug offenses in half.

Similarly, the Smarter Sentencing Act would retroactively apply the lighter crack penalties approved by Congress in 2010, allowing thousands of current prisoners to seek shorter sentences. While Politico says the Grassley-backed bill "would apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010…retroactively," Melber says it "would apply some of that reform retroactively." I'm not sure what "some of that reform" means, but it is obviously wrong to make any prisoners complete sentences that pretty much everyone now agrees are too long. Even Grassley apparently supported shorter crack sentences in 2010, since the Senate approved them by unanimous consent. So what possible justification can he have for opposing full retroactivity?

Grassley's influence also can be seen in provisions that increase the use of mandatory minimums. Melber says the new bill would "expand mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses, enhancing their use to punish selected firearm crimes and creating new mandatory minimums for offenses related to domestic violence and supporting terrorism." Melber suggests these changes "may address one of the common criticisms of the current federal application of mandatory minimums, which can result in heavier penalties for drug crimes than far graver offenses, such as violent crime."

Given that current firearm-related provisions dictate draconian penalties for people who never actually wield a gun, let alone hurt anyone with it, I am not at all optimistic that longer sentences for "selected firearm crimes" represent an improvement. Likewise with "new mandatory minimums" for "supporting terrorism," which can include nonviolent actions such as donating money to the wrong charity or even exercising the right to freedom of speech.

The Smarter Sentencing Act was already a compromise compared to the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bill backed by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would have eliminated mandatory minimums. Yet Grassley called the less ambitious bill "lenient" and "dangerous," since it would lighten penalties for offenses involving substantial amounts of drugs and manufacture, smuggling, or distribution. He conflated such offenses with violence, which means he either does not understand what that word means or does not understand how the current law works. It's a shame that reformers in the Senate must kowtow to such a mindlessly punitive demagogue.

Update: FAMM describes the new bill's provisions in more detail, calling it "the most significant…sentencing reform legislation in a generation."

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  1. …described the bill as “more than you think, but probably not as much as people will want.”

    Always leave ’em wanting more!

    1. We have to pass the bill to see what we will want.

  2. He conflated such offenses with violence, which means he either does not understand what that word means or does not understand how the current law works.

    Third option: Follow the money.

  3. It’s a shame that reformers in the Senate must kowtow to such a mindlessly punitive demagogue.

    Welcome to the world’s most deliberative body.

    1. Cos you’re once
      twice
      three times a Fisty

      1. Someone had to step up. Who was going to do it? Woodys mom? Rich? You?

        1. Thanks for staying on top, Fist. I don’t know how you keep doing it, what with all your other responsibilities.

  4. In a 2005 case, the US Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory nature of the Guidelines violated a defendant’s right to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. Now, the Guidelines are advisory only. Yet, people continue to be sentened to unjust terms.
    Who keeps voting for Bozo’s like Grassley anyway? Is HE representative of what the PEOPLE want?

    1. Yes, yes he is. There are loads and loads of “lock ’em all up” law and order types. And not only on the right. Ever been over to Jezebel? They love them some police state in the far reaches of the left of left too.

      The constituency for limiting punishment for criminals is very small. So small that to make it palatable to the left they had to wrap it up in “racism”. That was the lever that got this whole thing moving.

      The minority on the left and right (and orthogonally in the libertarian direction) that is in favor of rational and limited prison terms is tiny. This opportunity for reform is probably pretty small and the coalition in favor of it could unravel at any moment with a single news story about a drug gang turf war or some kids addicted to some new fad drug.

      1. Pity no one’s thought of “saving taxpayer money” to get the right on board with this.

        1. You the “the right” gives 2 shits about saving tax payer money?

      2. It is also an issue that can be endlessly twisted into a team fight.

        Check out what our local morons on Powerline think about this

        They don’t really spend a minute on whether the guidelines are right or wrong, but wonder why the GOP is joining up with the Dems.

        The one guy who talks about the team shit in the comments gets ripped. The other comments are depressingly Tulpa like in their eagerness to copsuck and put people in jail.

  5. Maybe it’s just me, but I always think of brain dead partisan hacks like Grassley and Schumer when I think of the worst of the Senate has to offer. Not that they lack competition, of course. The percentage of idiotic buffoons must be close to the 90s.

    1. I’m always surprised when I hear that guys like Grassley, Pat Roberts, and Lamar Alexander are still alive – AND still in the Senate. No wonder nothing happens when Cruz and Paul try to do something.

  6. Likewise with “new mandatory minimums” for “supporting terrorism,” which can include nonviolent actions such as donating money to the wrong charity

    “Charity begins at homegrown terrorism.”

  7. Average latest approval rate for congress overall = 14%

    Incumbent re-election rate for congress overall = 95+%

    Do we really need commentary on that?

    What we need are term limits, and not just on congress.

    1. How about if each State gets to elect 4 Senators but only is allowed to keep 2.

      Four go in, two come out!”

      Four go in, two come out!

      Four go in, two come out!

      Thunderdome!!!!!!!!!

      1. I liked it a lot until you said two come out.

        1. Right. 4 plus lion

          1. Naw PETA would be all over you for mistreating a lion like that.

            Howbout 4 + Minnesoda dentist?

            1. How about start with PETA + lion with mn dentist standing outside cage holding high powered rifle and doing nothing.

              1. Wait, what happened to the 4 candidates and why is PETA in there with the lion? Is the lion hurt? And PETA is there to tow it after the 4 Senate hopefuls?

                1. After the lion eats PETA we start sending in the senators. No one left to object.

  8. Must punish the sinners

  9. Chuck Grassley demands political irrelevance.

  10. Alt-text: “Wake up, Chuck! Let you see ’em!”

  11. It’s a shame that reformers in the Senate must kowtow to such a mindlessly punitive demagogue.

    But throwing druggies in cages is the only way Sen. Grassley can get hard these days. Why does Sullum hate old drug warrior boners?

  12. Just think how much simpler sentencing would be if every crime called for mandatory, summary execution?
    Shariah anyone?

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