MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Bipartisan Bill Would 'Reserve Federal Prisons for Serious Offenders'

The SAFE Justice Act tackles overcriminalization and overfederalization.

YouTubeYouTubeYesterday Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) unveiled an impressive package of criminal justice reforms that they have dubbed the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015. According to a summary by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the SAFE Justice Act would eliminate federal penalties for simple possession of drugs in jurisdictions subject to state law, reserve mandatory minimum sentences for high-level drug traffickers, make the shorter crack sentences enacted in 2010 retroactive, clarify that gun-related mandatory minimums can run consecutively only "when the offender is a true recidivist," expand the "safety valve" for nonviolent drug offenders, encourage more use of diversion and probation, and offer prisoners time reductions in exchange for their participation in job training and other programs aimed at reducing recidivism. FAMM says the bill "restores discretion to judges to determine to what extent manipulated conduct that results from fictitious law enforcement 'stings' may be considered in court." The bill also addresses criminal penalties for regulatory violations, requiring public disclosure of newly created offenses and allowing defendants to contact the Justice Department's inspector general if they believe their actions were inappropriately treated as a criminal matter.

The text of the bill does not seem to be available online yet, but I gather that the provision dealing with simple possession means people who buy and use marijuana in compliance with state law will no longer be committing federal crimes. It also means that people caught with other drugs will be prosecuted under state law rather than federal law. Together with the language narrowing the application of mandatory minimums, that change should help reduce the number of minor drug offenders in prison. "The SAFE Justice Act would reserve federal prisons for serious offenders and let the states handle the small fry," says FAMM President Julie Stewart. "When I was a kid, there was an expression: 'Don't make a federal case of it.' For the past 30 years, nearly every corner drug sale could be made into a 'federal case.' I look forward to the SAFE Justice Act restoring Congress's original intent and the correct state-federal balance in criminal justice."

The gun provision could make a big difference in cases where drug offenders who own guns are hit with multiple counts based on separate transactions. The first time someone possesses a gun in connection with a drug offense (whether or not he uses the gun, let alone injures anyone with it), the penalty is a five-year mandatory minimum. The penalty jumps to 25 years for subsequent offenses, and the sentences must be served consecutively. That's how Weldon Angelos got a 55-year sentence for three penny-ante pot sales.

FAMM says another provision of the SAFE Justice Act would allow life sentences for drug trafficking "only in the most egregious cases." Presumably that would prevent outrageous injustices like the two life sentences that a harmless Deadhead named Timothy Tyler received for mailing LSD.

In addition to FAMM, the bill's supporters include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, and Americans for Tax Reform. Its 20 initial cosponsors are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Update: The text of the bill is here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The U.S. Supreme Court has decided preemptively that this law violates the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. Legislation is in place to criminalize narcotics throughout the land. Who are these two to come along and mess with congressional intent?

  • CatoTheChipper||

    At this point, what difference does the text of legislation make anyway?

    No matter what Congress law enacts, it means whatever the DEA and the judiciary want it to mean.

  • Root Boy||

    Sadly you are probably right. DEA and AGs don't seem to want to let go of their scams, plea deals and power.

    You'd hope that with the takeover of the medical industry complete now, the destruction of the free market by the Fed, and the rampant takover of culture by SJWs we can at least hope for one light of freedom to shine through.

  • ||

    Moving towards a true democracy, where any petty bureaucrat can screw with anyone for anything! Forever!

  • PM||

    Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015

    Recursive acronyms are best left to the linux community, but we won't quibble if the bill is good.

  • thrakkorzog||

    Hey, they put a lot of that to get acronym for their law, so therefore it must be a good law. Just like the USA PATRIOT act.

  • thrakkorzog||

    Damn, no edit button. I meant to say they put a lot of thought into getting that acronym.

  • Jerryskids||

    Keep in mind that it's the same guy who authored the second authoring the first. Given how well the PATRIOT ACT worked, I've got a good feeling about this.

  • Rich||

    How long do these clowns sit around wasting taxpayer money to come up with a clever name?

    "OK, *here's* one for ya: "Fair, Accountable, Right, and Transparent'."

    "That really stinks! Hey, how about: 'Fair, Understanding, Clear, and Knowledgeable'?"

    "Come off it, man! We agreed no vulgarity. But you've got me thinking: "Safe, Pleasing, Life-Affirming, and Transparent'."

    "I like it! The 'SPLAT Justice Act of 2015' it is, then!"

  • Tsumaranai||

    I always wanted to start a women's rights group called Responsible Adults Protecting Equality.

  • Medical Physics Guy||

    Sensenbrenner is a champion of criminal justice reform? Never woulda thunk it.

  • Root Boy||

    He seems to at least partly realize the error of his ways. He was trying to get rid of 215 in the patriot act, was he not?

  • ||

    Assuming that the fine print fits with what has been reported, this piece of legislation makes too much sense, and puts a smallish cockblock against certain kinds of authority boner.

    It will be watered down or fed through the chipper.

  • Swiss Servator, Holzhacker||

    I was going to say just about this - too sensible, it will never make it.

  • np||

    The gun provision could make a big difference in cases where drug offenders who own guns are hit with multiple counts based on separate transactions. The first time someone possesses a gun in connection with a drug offense (whether or not he uses the gun, let alone injures anyone with it), the penalty is a five-year mandatory minimum. The penalty jumps to 25 years for subsequent offenses, and the sentences must be served consecutively. That's how Weldon Angelos got a 55-year sentence for three penny-ante pot sales.

    It's too bad they did not eliminate the insanity of extra punishment when gun possession is combined with drug possession altogether. Still if it passes I hope it's applied retroactively for Angelo's sake and others like him.

  • sarcasmic||

    Were they serious when they offended?

    Lock 'em up for life.

    /Roberts

  • DJF||

    The intent of the law was to put them in jail, so off to jail they go.

  • Rich||

    I gather that the provision dealing with simple possession means people who buy and use marijuana in compliance with state law will no longer be committing federal crimes.

    After yesterday's ruling, you gather *wrong*.

  • DJF||

    So how many pages will this cut, out of the millions of pages of laws, regulation and rules that the Federal Government now has?

  • Galactic Chipper Cdr Lytton||

    So how many pages will this cut add, out of the millions of pages of laws, regulation and rules that the Federal Government now has?

  • Galactic Chipper Cdr Lytton||

    Sorry. The answer is 'we have to pass it to find out'.

  • AlmightyJB||

    "allowing defendants to contact the Justice Department's inspector general if they believe their actions were inappropriately treated as a criminal matter."

    So they can receive a fytw form letter back?

  • Root Boy||

    Yeah, that seems like an easy way to lose things down a bureaucratic rat hole

  • Je suis Woodchipper||

    Roberts: Congress's intent was to make the world safe for our children so terms like "true," "serious," "discretion," and "squishy" will be defined to mean "false," "laughable," "tuffgai," and "waterboard."

  • All-Seeing Woodchipper||

    "Oracle Roberts"

  • Rich||

    "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit inhaling ethylene."

  • AlmightyJB||

    Yeah, boss I ran your request to have that analysis done by noon through my Robert's translater and it came back as take the rest of the day off.

  • AlmightyJB||

    "It also means that people caught with other drugs will be prosecuted under state law rather than federal law"

    Is that going to be accompanied by more fed WOD money to the States?

  • LynchPin1477||

    I needed some good news after yesterday.

    Though I have to ask, what's to stop some prosecutor or judge from interpreting the law to mean whatever they want? We're in that era now.

  • The Shrubber's Woodchipper||

    The obvious intent of previously passed drug laws was to put people in prison for their drug use. This proposed law would be counter to the DEA's reasonable interpretation of existing law, therefor UNCONSTITUTIONAL.

    Roberts has made it easy to pretend to be a constitutional scholar.

  • sarcasmic||

    Just like our king.

  • Free ¡Woodchippers! Society||

    Kings at least are determined by heredity. There's an off-chance that he'll be a decent person and be a better ruler having been raised to be so. An elected president however, is the winner of a contest between sociopaths to see who is the most convincing pathological liar. Having a shitbag in the role of chief executive is nearly guaranteed.

  • sarcasmic||

    language narrowing the application of mandatory minimums

    That's obviously a figure of speech meaning to narrow the application of mandatory minimums to a sharp point that shall be used on every offender at every available opportunity.

    /Roberts

  • Root Boy||

    Man, you guys are killing me. Is Roberts now going to be dreamboat cover boy for Progressive Beat Magazine?

  • Free ¡Woodchippers! Society||

    If the shoe fits.

  • The Last American Hero||

    I note that serious crime still apparently includes insulting a thin skinned federal judge on the internet.

    The Tree of Liberty must be fed through a woodchipper.

  • sarcasmic||

    It already has.

  • Suellington||

    It seems entirely too sensible to pass, but it does have both Teams on board so you never know. I would expect the final version to be severely watered down.

  • Gluteus Maximilian||

    This law is designed so that federal judges can reserve the harshest sentences for the worst criminals possible: Internet trolls who criticize federal judges.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online