Mandatory Minimums

Top National Police Organization Declares Support for Modest Federal Sentencing Reforms

What did it take? A promise not to make mandatory minimum reductions retroactive.


Mitch McConnell

Could it be? The nation's biggest police organization publicly coming out in favor of criminal justice reform?

Yes, it's true. The National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has just announced its support for the FIRST STEP Act, a prison reform bill that eases up federal incarceration for nonviolent crimes by expanding eligibility for halfway houses, keeping federal inmates closer to their homes, and banning the shackling of pregnant inmates, among other changes aimed at scaling back the harshness of our federal prison system.

The bill passed the House in May, and the Senate is working on some changes to it. The Senate version of the bill would reform mandatory minimum sentencing to give judges more leeway. It would also make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. That bill changed the law to reduce penalties for crack cocaine convictions to make them match powder cocaine convictions.

The bill is fairly modest, given the current congressional dynamics. Even though it's polling well, its future was uncertain. On Friday, its chances were bolstered significantly by the FOP's announcement that it's on board:

"By individually targeting those offenders with the lowest risk to offend, law enforcement and correctional officers can better focus their resources," [FOP President Chuck] Canterbury explained. "The F.O.P. played a key role in making sure that truly dangerous offenders, like those who commit crimes while armed and those who traffic and deadly narcotics like fentanyl, are ineligible to participate in the First Step program."

Note that even as legislators and police recognize the bad consequences of treating crack cocaine like a uniquely dangerous threat deserving harsher punishment, they're falling into the trap of treating fentanyl as a unique threat—and ignoring how the government's own attack on the medical use of painkillers pushes people toward the more dangerous black-market drugs that are more likely to cause overdoses.

The press release notes that the lawmakers have gotten FOP's support by promising not to make other sentencing reforms (besides the Fair Sentencing Act) retroactive. So those handed mandatory minimum life sentences for a drug offense under federal three-strikes regulations cannot request mercy to get their sentences cut to 25 years. This seems cruel, but hey, it keeps prison guards on the job. The bill also earned FOP support by granting guards the authority to carry concealed firearms on prison property as long as they're outside the secure perimeter of the prison.

But regardless of the gaps in the bill, it would still make life better for thousands of people currently in prison for nonviolent drug crimes. And with Attorney General Jeff Sessions being shown the door, the bill's prospects for passage may be improving. Sessions opposed weakening mandatory minimum sentences, but President Donald Trump seems open to these modest reforms. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he's going to see if he's got the votes to get it passed during the upcoming lame duck session.