Three decades ago, Congress required long sentences for "a class of repeat offenders and career criminals who think they have a right to victimize their fellow citizens with virtual impunity," as President Ronald Reagan put it. But as I explain in my latest Forbes column, the definition of "career criminals" including nonviolent drug offenders, who continue to receive sentences as long as 30 years for crimes with no identifiable victims:
The first time Paul Fields was sentenced for a marijuana offense, he got probation. The second time, he got 100 days in jail. The third time, he got more than 15 years in prison.
That astonishing escalation was caused by a federal sentencing provision aimed at "career offenders," defined as people with two prior convictions for felonies involving drugs or violence who are convicted of a third such felony. Without that enhancement, which Congress seems to have mandated with scary predators in mind, Fields, who never hurt anyone and never even got to sell any of the marijuana from the 256 plants police found at his home in Jonesborough, Tennessee, would have faced a maximum sentence of two years.
A new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) recommends that Congress revise the career-offender provision to focus on violent criminals, which would avoid injustices like the one suffered by Fields. "The career offender directive fails to meaningfully distinguish among career offenders with different types of criminal records and has resulted in overly severe penalties for some offenders," the commission concludes. "The career offender directive should be amended to differentiate between career offenders with different types of criminal records, and is best focused on those offenders who have committed at least one 'crime of violence.'"