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Free Minds & Free Markets

Alarmist Nonsense Should Not Stop Sentencing Reform

The modest changes in the FIRST STEP Act are no threat to public safety.

The federal sentencing reforms that Donald Trump endorsed last week could shorten the terms of 2,700 or so drug offenders who are already in prison and perhaps another 2,200 who are sent there each year. That amounts to 1.5 percent of the current federal prison population and 3 percent of the federal defendants sentenced in fiscal year 2017, respectively.

These reforms, which are included in the Senate version of the aptly named FIRST STEP Act, are extremely modest, especially since the federal system accounts for only 9 percent of the 2.2 million people incarcerated across the country. Yet opponents of the bill portray it as a reckless gamble with public safety, which is how they portray every attempt to make our obscenely bloated, mindlessly punitive criminal justice system even slightly more proportionate and discriminating.

"A dangerous person who is properly incarcerated can't mug your sister," says Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). "If we're not careful with this, somebody is going to get killed."

"Unaccountable politicians and those who live behind armed guards may be willing to gamble with your life," writes Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). "But why should you?"

To hear Kennedy and Cotton tell it, Congress is on the verge of freeing hordes of muggers and murderers. That is not remotely true, and they know it is not remotely true.

The only sentencing provision of the FIRST STEP Act that affects current prisoners is retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, which Congress overwhelmingly approved—by a voice vote in the House and unanimous consent in the Senate—eight years ago. That law reduced the unjust, irrational disparity between the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine, but it did not apply to crack offenders who had already been sentenced, so thousands of people continued to serve prison terms that pretty much everyone agreed were too long.

The most consequential forward-looking sentencing reform in the FIRST STEP Act, which might help about 2,000 defendants a year, widens the "safety valve" that exempts certain low-level, nonviolent offenders from mandatory minimums. The bill raises the number of allowable criminal history points and authorizes judges to waive that requirement when a defendant's score "substantially overrepresents" the seriousness of his criminal history or the danger he poses.

Two other reforms in the bill would apply to just 50 or so defendants a year, but they address serious, longstanding, and widely recognized injustices. One provision clarifies that escalating mandatory minimums for drug offenders who have guns require prior convictions, rather than multiple charges in a single case.

The case of Weldon Angelos, a first-time offender who received a 55-year mandatory minimum in 2004 for three marijuana sales totaling a pound and a half, dramatically illustrates the problem that provision addresses. Because Angelos allegedly carried a pistol during one pot sale and had guns nearby during the other two, prosecutors charged him with three counts of using a firearm in the course of a drug trafficking offense, triggering a five-year sentence for the first count and 25-year sentences for the second and third, all to be served consecutively.

The fourth sentencing reform in the FIRST STEP Act narrows the criteria for mandatory minimums that apply to repeat drug offenders and reduces the sentences, from 20 to 15 years for defendants with one prior conviction and from life to 25 years for defendants with two. Only politicians who think nothing of locking people in cages for decades based on conduct that violates no one's rights could possibly view those changes as soft on crime.

These reforms, which represent compromises on top of compromises, have attracted broad bipartisan support, including the backing of a president who ran on a "law and order" platform modeled after Richard Nixon's. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised a vote on the bill, and he should not use the alarmist nonsense emanating from the likes of Kennedy and Cotton as an excuse to renege on that commitment.

© Copyright 2018 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    This account illuminates the reason libertarians find the Republican Party, and right-wingers in general, repulsive.

  • sarcasmic||

    As a general rule the right sucks when it comes to personal liberty, as in drugs, buttsex, hookers and other victimless crimes, while the left sucks when it comes to economic liberty, as in how you earn your money, how much of it you keep, and what you can spend it on.

    They both suck.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Poxes all around!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Don't sell the left short on personal liberty. There are still plenty fighting to protect you from drug abuse, sex trafficking and property rights.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Or the right on economic liberty... There are plenty of protectionists and deficit spenders among their ranks.

    And don't sell Fist short on the use of the Oxford comma.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Sounds like, for libertarians, it's close to a tie between Republicans and Democrats.

    The tie-breaker, for me, is Republicans' appeasement -- if not embrace -- of old-style bigotry.

  • Oli||

    Exactly this. There can't be a partisan libertarian, because, for a libertarian, any kind of politics is a necessary evil at best.

  • Sevo||

    Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland|11.21.18 @ 9:41AM|#
    "The tie-breaker, for me, is Republicans' appeasement -- if not embrace -- of old-style bigotry."

    But you just love the left's new-style bigotry, right asshole?

  • retiredfire||

    No one is more bigoted that lefty Artie.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    There are still plenty fighting to protect you from drug abuse, sex trafficking and property rights.

    Not to mention "hate speech" and the scourge of EVUL GUNZ with "shoulder things that go up."

  • buybuydandavis||

    An article at Reason is not complete without the Reverend sharing his hatred of Americans in the comments.

  • Jerryskids||

    Mercy is for the weak. What are we, a bunch of pussies? I say we start chopping off heads, throwing off of roofs, burning at the stake, drawing and quartering, pressing and racking people. Once we're done with Congress, we might try it on some of the rest of the criminal class.

  • Kivlor||

    Mercy comes after justice, as a way to perfect justice. You can't have mercy, until you have had justice.

    This idea of "Oh, show mercy!" is a complete bastardization of the concept of mercy.

    What is being done is often unjust. Correcting that is not mercy, it is in fact restoring justice.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Public hanging for those who act on their bigotry -- vote suppressors, for example, people who massacre because they hate immigrants, and people who conduct lethal 'Jews will not replace us' events -- sounds like a good first step along this line.

  • Kivlor||

    You know, it is people like you who make it hard to hold to think the Catholics were ever wrong with the Inquisition. At least they offered due process, executions were very rare, and half the time, the executions were in effigy rather than real. If I had to live with that, or your kind, I'd take the former gladly.

  • CDRSchafer||

    Shouldn't you be stalking Tucker Carlson while you pee in your Depends, along with the Antifa sewing circle?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If freed drug users weren't a problem, why would you need the likes of Kennedy and Cotton to protect you?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    "A dangerous person who is properly incarcerated can't mug your sister," says Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). "If we're not careful with this, somebody is going to get killed."

    "Unaccountable politicians and those who live behind armed guards may be willing to gamble with your life," writes Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). "But why should you?"

    Fuck both of these assclowns. I hope they both drink some bleach and then take some buckshot to the face.

  • Bob Meyer||

    A congressman, properly removed from office, can't steal your money or destroy your liberty.

    Kennedy and Cotton need new and fulfilling lives in the private sector where their talents will justify their working in either the janitorial or food service industries.

  • Truthteller1||

    Right wingers are just as idiotic as left wingers

  • Uncle Jay||

    Sentencing reform is a bad idea.
    The reality of today indicates there are too few prisons, too few prison guards, too few prison administrators, etc.
    If we are to become a true socialist paradise, we must ensure the little people have experienced the joys and wonders of being held a prisoner in a gulag.
    Indeed, all the little people should be subjected to the necessary re-education in order to observe, obey and comply with all the well-intentioned ideals of a socialist society, and the only way to do this is to have a maximum security prison in every county complete with torture chambers, firing squads, and day care centers. This way our beloved Union of Soviet Socialist Slave States of America will be the envy of the world as we brainwash, torture, starve and shoot the unwashed masses into submission in order to show everyone how humane a socialist state can be.

  • Sevo||

    You're no OBL...
    (but you're getting close)

  • CE||

    Nor should alarmist nonsense make us think we need to derail the world economy to stop the weather from getting nicer.

  • retiredfire||

    "...which is how they portray every attempt to make our obscenely bloated, mindlessly punitive criminal justice system even slightly more proportionate and discriminating."
    Now there's some unbiased reporting for you.

  • Eddy||

    Yes, by all means be on the alert for ill-advised attempts to swing the pendulum back towards undue lenity for criminals.

    But this bill doesn't seem to meet that description. It sounds like some tweaking to make sentencing more proportionate.

    But, sure, there are people who want to lower sentences for everyone, including those convicted of violent crimes. They don't make the distinction between violent recidivist felons on the one hand and those who fall short of that.

    Certainly, some violent offenders are presumably given plea-bargains where charges of violence are dropped in exchange for them admitting to nonviolent drug transactions. But so long as we have plea bargains (due to so many laws we can't try all the cases we charge), then a bargain's a bargain, and the prisoner needs to be treated for the nonviolent crime he copped to, not the alleged violent crimes the prosecutor swears he would totally have been able t prove if there'd been a trial.

  • Azathoth!!||

    There are vast problems with this.

    The first concern should be those who have never been convicted of a crime--the people who haven't decided to live outside the law. Nothing done to reform sentencing should endanger them. In simpler terms, most of the people in the country. We should not endanger everyone for the benefit of convicted criminals.

    The second thing is that this should concern only those who've committed victimless crimes

    Victimless. And we need to be very sure of that.

    Someone busted for simple possession who has prior convictions of theft and burglary is not someone who commits victimless crimes. Theft and burglary have victims.

    Additionally, people plead down. A charge of simple possession might be a plea bargain from gang related offenses.

    A person who has prior convictions for crimes with victims should not be eligible.

    Is it that awful to make sure that people who prey on others not be among those who benefit from this?

  • buybuydandavis||

    This actual Libertarian Moment brought to you by Trump and the Deplorables over the machinations of Reason.

    You're welcome.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    No Threat To Public Safety?
    You willing to post a bond over that?

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