Mandatory Minimums

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Federal Sentencing Break to Include "Pipeline" Cases

In a speech Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he was expanding the Justice Department's recently announced policy of not pursuing mandatory minimum drug sentencing to include people whose cases are already in the "pipeline."

Last month, Holder unveiled a major step toward reducing the federal prison population. He said he would direct US Attorneys that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders not tied to gangs or major trafficking organizations should not be charged in ways that trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

Now, he is going to include people who have been charged with such offenses, but whose cases have not yet been completed and who have not yet reported to prison, he said.

"I am pleased to announce today that the Department has issued new guidance to apply our updated charging policy not only to new matters, but also to pending cases where the defendant was charged before the policy was issued but is still awaiting adjudication of guilt," Holder said.

"By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we can better enhance public safety," he told the audience at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Criminal Justice Issues Forum in Washington. "We can increase our focus on proven strategies for deterrence and rehabilitation. And we can do so while making our expenditures smarter and more productive."

According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, as of last month, there were some 89,000 people doing federal time for drug offenses. They are by far the largest category of federal prisoners and account for nearly half (46.8%) of all federal prisoners.

Washington, DC
United States

Another Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing...

US Capitol, Senate side
From http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/hearing.cfm?id=d3ddc8eaa9b9f780d5af0a554e5fcf98:

September 11, 2013

NOTICE OF COMMITTEE HEARING

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary has scheduled a hearing entitled "Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences" for Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. in Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

By order of the Chairman.

Witness List

Hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary

On

"Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 226
10:00 a.m.

Panel I

The Honorable Rand Paul
United States Senator
State of Kentucky

Panel II

The Honorable Brett Tolman
Shareholder
Ray Quinney & Nebeker
Salt Lake City, UT

Marc Levin
Policy Director
Right on Crime Initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Austin, TX

Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform? [FEATURE]

After decades of ever-increasing resort to mass incarceration in the United States, we seem to be reaching the end of the line. Driven in large part by economic necessity, state prison populations have, in the past three years, begun to decline slightly. The federal prison system, however, continues to grow, but now, there are signs that even at the federal level, the winds of change are blowing, and the conditions are growing increasingly favorable for meaningful executive branch and congressional actions to reform draconian sentencing policies.

prison dorm
There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle reported on Attorney General Holder's speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, where he announced a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing, especially a backing away from the routine use of mandatory minimum sentencing via charging decisions by federal prosecutors.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said Monday. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

But while Holder outlined actions that can be taken by the executive branch, he also signaled administration support for two pieces of bipartisan sentencing reform legislation moving in the Senate. Those two bills, the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619), introduced in the spring, and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), introduced just last week, have better prospects of moving forward now than anything since the Fair Sentencing Act passed three years ago. .

Pat Leahy
That's because it's not just Democrats or liberals who are supporting them. The Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has not only the usual suspects behind it, but also The New York Times, conservative taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, and a group of 50 former prosecutors. And, somewhat surprisingly, that bane of liberals, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), just came out in with model legislation mirroring the act's provisions.The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.

The other bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, also has bipartisan support and was sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). It would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, make a modest expansion to the safety valve provision (though continuing to exclude anyone previously incarcerated in prison for more than 13 months in the past 10 years), and make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act applicable to persons sentenced before its enactment, which would reduce sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

The Justice Safety Valve Act has companion legislation in the House, again bipartisan, sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). And another House bill, the Public Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2656), cosponsored by Scott and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, thus saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.

Only bolstering the case for further sentencing reform is the US Sentencing Commission's preliminary report on crack retroactive sentencing data, released late last month. That report found that some 7,300 federal crack defendants received an average 29-month reduction in their sentences, saving roughly half a billion dollars in imprisonment costs without an concomitant increase in crime rates.

"Taxpayers have received the same level of crime control but for a half- billion dollars cheaper," noted Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "What’s not to love?"

Given the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act three years ago with conservative support, the proven budgetary benefits of reducing incarceration, and the current role of conservatives in pushing for reform, the chances are better than ever that something could pass this year, and even if it doesn't, the changes announced by Holder should ensure that at least some federal drug defendants will get some relief, observers said.

"The policies Holder described in his speech will probably help produce reduced drug sentences in some cases," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "But it is also important in a symbolic sense. The fact that the attorney general is leading this conversation may help to open up the political space where we can have a different discussion about crime policy. The discussion has been evolving significantly over recent years, and in some ways, his speech represents an affirmation that the climate has shifted, and that there is commitment from the top to moving forward on sentencing reform."

Rand Paul
"I think we're at a moment when bipartisan sentencing reform is possible," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We've got those bipartisan bills in Congress, we have that ALEC endorsement, we have Holder's speech, and more."

"Given how little bipartisan cooperation there is on anything, it's remarkable that we have two bills in the Senate addressing mandatory minimums," Mauer noted. "This bipartisan cosponsorship is very intriguing, and is contributing to the momentum. There has been no significant backlash to Holder's speech, and that suggest a pretty broad recognition that the time has come to move in this direction."

Not every reformer was as sanguine as Mauer. In California, marijuana reformers and industry players, many of whom have borne the brunt of a federal crackdown, were offended that Holder would give a speech in San Francisco and not address their issue. Harborside's Steve DeAngelo posted the following statement in reaction: "Eric Holder's speech advocating drug war changes rings hollow to those of in states that have already passed reform legislation, only to see it relentlessly attacked by Mr. Holder's very own US Attorneys," DeAngelo said. "We had hoped the Attorney General would clarify federal policy toward state cannabis laws, as he promised to do almost a year ago. But instead of concrete action to support state reform efforts, Holder offered more vague promises about future changes in federal policy."

Conversely, it wasn't just reformers seeing possible changes on the horizon.

"It is impressive that Holder has decided to stay with a lame duck president and emphasize this issue," said Phil Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University. "I think there is a consensus forming for reform, and I would not have thought that possible two years ago. If something is going to happen, I expect it to happen within the next 18 months."

Stinson made a telling, if seldom mentioned, point.

"This is largely driven by economics," he said, "but also by the fact that by now, almost everybody knows a family member or friend or friend's child who has been behind bars. It has taken awhile to get to this point, but now the issue is ripe, and the opportunity is there."

"It looks like there is a real opportunity in Congress," Piper argued. "The general consensus is that there are too many people in prison and too many tax dollars wasted. Even some of the most conservative offices we talk to want to talk about sentencing reform. Something is possible, even though this is Congress and the Obama administration we're talking about. The stars are aligning, but it will take a lot of work to get it done. There seems to be something real happening with sentencing reform based on the number of Republicans starting to talk about it, and I'm certainly more optimistic than I was a year ago."

"While things are moving in the Senate, the House is more difficult to predict," said Mauer. "But even if something does get through, the scale of the problem of mass incarceration is going to require a wholesale shift in approach and policy. The current proposals are steps in that direction, but it will require a much more substantial shift if we are to see significant reductions."

Or, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition has long argued, reforms on the back end -- sentencing -- will have limited impact on people sent to prison for drug offenses, absent change on the front end -- ending drug prohibition and prohibition-driven policing.

Whether a perfect storm for sentencing reform is brewing remains to be scene, but there are winds blowing from unusual directions. The collision of Democratic social justice liberalism and Republican fiscal conservatism and libertarianism could on this occasion produce, if not a perfect storm, at least the first rumblings of a political earthquake.

[See our related story this issue, "As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform."]

Washington, DC
United States

As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing. He said he will direct US Attorneys that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders not tied to gangs or major trafficking organizations should not be charged in ways that trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

Attorney General Eric Holder (usjoj.gov)
Holder's announcement is only the latest indicator that -- after decades of "tough on crime" politics in Washington -- pressure is mounting to do something about the huge number of people in federal prisons. The Chronicle will be reporting on the rising calls for reform in both the executive branch and the Congress later this week.

In a major speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco Monday morning, Holder laid out Obama administration sentencing reform plans, some of which can be implemented by executive action, but some of which will require action in the Congress. The comprehensive sentencing reform package is designed to reduce the federal prison population not only through sentencing reforms, but also through alternatives to incarceration in the first place.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

"It's time -- in fact, it's well past time -- to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach," Holder told the assembled attorneys. "While I have the utmost faith in -- and dedication to -- America's legal system, we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken. The course we are on is far from sustainable. And it is our time -- and our duty -- to identify those areas we can improve in order to better advance the cause of justice for all Americans."

One of those areas, Holder said, is mandatory minimum sentencing.

"We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.  Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences -- regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case -- reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries," said the former federal prosecutor. "Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They -- and some of the enforcement priorities we have set -- have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color. And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive."

In addition to reducing the resort to mandatory minimum sentencing and directing prosecutors to use their discretion in charging decisions, Holder will also order the Justice Department to expand the federal prison compassionate release program to include "elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences."

Beside the executive branch actions, Holder also committed the Obama administration to supporting sentencing reform legislation currently pending before Congress, specifically the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619), which would give federal judges the ability to sentence below mandatory minimums when circumstances warrant, and the the Smart Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 1410), which would reduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes, slightly expand the existing drug sentencing safety valve, and apply retroactively the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010's reduction in the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

"Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars," Holder said. "Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable."

Sentencing and drug reform advocates welcomed Holder's speech and the Obama administration's embrace of the need for criminal justice reforms, but also scolded the administration and lawmakers for taking so long to address the issue and for timidity in the changes proposed.

"For the past 40 years, the Department of Justice, under both political parties, has promoted mandatory minimum sentencing like a one-way ratchet. Federal prison sentences got longer and longer and no one stopped to consider the costs and benefits," said Julie Stewart, founder and head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Today, at long last, the politics of criminal sentencing have caught up to the evidence. The changes proposed by the Attorney General are modest but they will make us safer and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the process."

"There's no good reason, of course, why the Obama administration couldn't have done something like this during his first term -- and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay," said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann in a message to supporters. "But that said, President Obama and Attorney General Holder deserve credit for stepping out now, and for doing so in a fairly decisive way."

[See our related story this issue, "Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform?"]

San Francisco, CA
United States

Juries Must Find Facts on Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Supreme Court Rules

The US Supreme Court Monday dealt a blow to mandatory minimum sentencing, ruling that any facts used to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence are "elements" of the crime and must be proven by a jury, not left to a judge. The 5-4 ruling came in Alleyne v. United States.

Until Monday's ruling, judges had been able to find certain facts that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences, such as quantities of drugs involved in an offense, based on a "preponderance of evidence" in post-conviction sentencing hearings. Now, those facts will have to established by juries in the course of the trial using the higher standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The case is the latest in a line of cases that began with the groundbreaking 2000 Supreme Court decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that any fact that increases the range of punishments is an "element" of the crime and must be presented to a jury and proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Sentencing reform advocates were pleased by the ruling.

"Mandatory minimums for drug offenders will lessen, but it's difficult to say to what extent," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes mandatory minimum sentences. "It's also likely that this will have beneficial effects in reducing racial disparity, because so many mandatory minimums are imposed for drug offenses, and because African-Americans in particular are on the receiving end of those penalties."

"No defendant should have to face a mandatory minimum sentence because of facts that are not considered -- or worse, considered and rejected -- by a jury," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. "As Justice Thomas noted in Monday's opinion, 'mandatory minimums heighten the loss of liberty.' Today, those who face mandatory minimums do so with the Constitution more firmly at their backs."

Drug offenders are those most likely to be hit with mandatory minimum sentences.

Washington, DC
United States

Iowa Federal Judge Criticizes Harsh Methamphetamine Sentences

A Sioux City-based US district court judge has criticized harsh tough methamphetamine sentencing guidelines, writing in a recent opinion that he considers them "fundamentally flawed," not based on empirical evidence, and too harsh for low-level offenders.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/judge-mark-bennett.jpg
Judge Mark Bennett (iand.uscourts.gov)
US District Judge Mark Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa cut the sentence of a convicted Sioux City methamphetamine dealer from nearly 16 years to just more than six years, saying in his 44-page ruling that he has a "fundamental policy disagreement" with the meth portion of the federal sentencing guidelines.

"The methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed because they fail to consider additional factors beyond quantity," Bennett wrote in his Friday ruling in US v. Willie Hayes. "The system is too severe in the indiscriminate way it treats offenders… Since the methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed, I find that they fail to promote the purposes of sentencing" outlined in federal law.

Bennett has been a long-time critic of federal mandatory minimum sentencing, and in his ruling, he argued that meth sentencing guidelines seemed more based on politics than science and lacked the depth of other portions of the guidelines. Meth dealers are getting much harsher sentences than people convicted of selling heroin or cocaine, he noted.

Iowa defense attorneys consulted by the Des Moines Register said Bennett's ruling was "a very big deal."

"It is a very big deal, and it's also something that's been coming for awhile," said Des Moines defense attorney Angela Campbell. "And he's right. The guidelines are so high, you can have a runner or a very low-level pseudoephedrine (purchaser) who gets life very easily… If you're buying pseudoephedrine for a large-scale drug operation, you don't get hit just on what you buy, you’re responsible for the same thing as the entire conspiracy."

"He's not a lone voice in the wilderness," said Iowa defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown, who added that defense lawyers need to cite Bennett's opinion in meth cases. "It's an argument that defense lawyers in both the Northern and Southern districts of Iowa need to make," Brown said. "It's malpractice not to."

At least two other federal judges, Joseph Bataillon in Nebraska and John Gleeson in New York have issued similar criticisms of meth guidelines. Bennett's ruling drew on their reasoning.

Bennett, for his part, said reducing meth guideline sentences by a third was "a good starting point and a reasonable way to express my policy disagreement." But, he added, he "will reserve the ability to adjust the figure upwards and downwards as I weigh" other "important factors the guidelines do not contemplate."

Prosecutors could appeal Bennett's ruling in the Yates case. If they do, that could open the door to a decision by the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which in turn could open the door to a US Supreme Court review of sentencing procedure in the world of now-advisory guidelines, or even of the fairness of meth sentences.

Sioux City, IA
United States

Justice Safety Valve Act Introduced in House

On Wednesday, US Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, House Bill 1695, in the House of Representatives. Identical companion legislation, Senate Bill 619, was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Pat Leahy (D-VT) last month.

US Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA)
Under pressure from sentencing reform advocates, as well as civil rights activists, Congress modified its strict mandatory minimum drug sentencing regime years ago to create a "safety valve" allowing some -- but not all -- drug offenders to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences. The 2013 Justice Safety Valve Act would expand the safety valve to apply to all federal crimes involving mandatory minimums.

"Mandatory minimum sentences have been shown to mandate unjust results," said Rep. Scott. "They have a racially discriminatory impact, studies conclude that they waste the taxpayer's money, and they often violate common sense."

"The one size fits all approach of federally mandated minimums does not give local judges the latitude they need to ensure that punishments fit the crimes," said Rep. Massie. "As a result, nonviolent offenders are sometimes given excessive sentences. Furthermore, public safety can be compromised because violent offenders are released from our nation's overcrowded prisons to make room for nonviolent offenders."

Noting that the federal Bureau of Prisons accounts for 25% of all Justice Department spending, Scott and Massie said passage of the measure was necessary to help reduce "the bloated federal prison population." Drug offenders make up nearly 50% of the more than 200,000 current federal prisoners.

Washington, DC
United States

Sens. Leahy, Paul Introduce Federal Mandatory Minimum Reform Bill [FEATURE]

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) joined Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in introducing legislation that would give federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing in cases where mandatory minimum sentences are involved. The bill, Senate Bill 691, also known as the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would expand the "safety valve" to apply to all federal crimes.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY)
Currently, the "safety valve" allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum only in some drug cases. Only about 25% of federal drug offenders are currently able to take advantage of the "safety valve" to earn reduced sentences.

The bill comes as the federal government faces chronic budget crises and a federal prison population that has grown nearly 10-fold in the past three decades and by 55% since 2000. In 1980, there were some 25,000 federal prisoners; now there are more than 217,000, and almost half of them are drug offenders. At more than $7 billion this year, the federal prison budget now accounts for almost one-quarter of all Justice Department spending, and is up by $2 billion in the last five years alone.

The bill also comes amidst a rising hue and cry to move away from mandatory minimums. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service issued a January report that suggested that instead of expanding federal prison construction, Congress "could consider options such as modifying mandatory minimum penalties," as well as increased resort to probation, reinstating parole in the federal system, and "repealing federal criminal statutes for some offenses."

Similarly, the US Sentencing Commission surveyed federal judges in 2010 and found that 70% of the 600 judges who responded favored expanding the "safety valve" to all mandatory minimum sentences. Rising federal prison budgets and sentencing reform have also been a continuing concern for Chairman Leahy. He held hearings last summer on the issue, and now he has sponsored legislation to do something about it.

"As a former prosecutor, I understand that criminals must be held accountable, and that long sentences are sometimes necessary to keep criminals off the street and deter those who would commit violent crime," Sen. Leahy said. "Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake.  I am not convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just or beneficial. It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them.  A one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing does not make us safer."

"Our country's mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the constitutional separation of powers, violates the our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer," said cosponsor Sen. Paul. "This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory minimum penalties."

Drug and sentencing reform advocates celebrated the bill's introduction, although some thought that even more should be done.

The Yankton (SD) Federal Prison Camp. It used to be Yankton College, but now houses minimum security prisoners. (wikimedia.org)
"I am thrilled that Sen. Leahy and Sen. Paul are promoting this common-sense sentencing reform," said Julie Stewart, founder and executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "The mandatory minimum sentences Congress might be appropriate in many cases, but certainly not in every case, especially those involving non-violent offenders. By giving courts more flexibility, Congress will ensure that judges use our scarce prison beds and budget to keep us safe from truly violent offenders."

"Congress must reexamine mandatory minimum sentencing to determine whether they are necessary and appropriate while also analyzing the racial disparities that have arisen in the imposition of mandatory sentences," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bill is a step in the right direction. While overdue, the recent reform of the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity did not do enough to alleviate mass incarceration, or racial disparities, in the federal system. Passage of this bill will hopefully mean more judges won’t give low-level drug law offenders draconian sentences reserved for drug kingpins. Research has shown that more than half of all federal drug law offenders had little or no criminal history but they make up more than half of all federal prisoners."

"We are pleased that after decades of 'lock 'em up' rhetoric, Republicans and Democrats are beginning to realize that ever increasing penalties are not the most effective way to keep Americans safe," said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project. "Nowhere is this more true than in the area of mandatory minimum penalties, which are limited because they address severity of punishment, not certainty. A recent Congressional Research Service report shows that mandatory minimums are a primary driver of our high prison populations and costs. Moreover, they are rife with racial unfairness.  While it would be better to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether, we are pleased that Senators Leahy and Paul have introduced legislation that would mitigate their harshest effects. Congress should take up this legislation to address ineffective 'one size fits all' mandatory minimum penalties that allow little consideration for individual characteristics and drive racial disparities in sentencing."

And, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on federal prisoners, has been pointing out for years, mandatory minimum reforms and sentencing reforms in general are "back end" solutions. While such measures are a necessary corrective to ameliorate what Leahy called the country's "mass incarceration problem," the more radical solution is on the "front end" -- stopping those federal arrests and prosecutions.
 

"It's a good news bill, don't get me wrong," Callahan said Thursday. "Dismantling the drug war a brick at a time is one way to get rid of it -- or will we just create more space for more people to do less time? I can't help but know that leaders can get bolder than this. And those judges would do well to use a lot more discretion pretrial and start disallowing various 'extrajudicial procedures' like count-stacking, reliance on informants and rewarded witnesses; fast-tracking--and it wouldn't take an act of Congress."

Washington, DC
United States

Sens. Leahy and Paul Introduce Bill to Undo Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Pat Leahy & Rand Paul
Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have introduced S. 619, the bipartisan "Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013," allowing judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences when they deem appropriate. It expands on legislation passed in 1994 that allows judges to waive five- and ten-year sentences for certain drug crimes. (We advocated for the original safety valve, during our first year as an organization.) The Leahy-Paul bill does this for all federal crimes.

Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has a press release. So does FAMM.

Phil will be doing a feature story on the bill tomorrow, but not in time for tomorrow morning's email editions, so be sure to check Drug War Chronicle this week. (If you don't get the Chronicle by email, you can sign up here.)

Snitch: Action Thriller With a Drug War Message [FEATURE]

Snitch is a Hollywood action thriller with a message, and it’s a message that is so far playing well with audiences and theaters across the land. The $15 million crime and justice pic starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Susan Sarandon has already done more than $32 million in gross box office receipts, and its being held over for a fourth week in select theaters around the country.

Based on a 1999 PBS Frontline documentary of the same name, Snitch tells the story of trucking company owner John Matthews (Johnson), whose estranged son is set up by a friend in trouble with the law. The son accepts delivery of a package of Ecstasy, and is then raided and arrested by the DEA. Matthews' hired attorney explains to the stunned parents that their son is looking at a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, and the only way out is to snitch on somebody else.

The son bravely refuses to rat out his friends and is kept behind bars, where he is brutalized, but Matthews feels it is nobler to save his son and decides to intercede on his behalf. Using his business connections, he wrangles a meeting with hard-hearted, politically-driven US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) and offers to set up dope dealers himself if that can get his son out of trouble.

From there, it's typical action thriller material, with dangerous, desperate dope dealers (who already have two strikes and aren't about to go down for a third), tormented ex-cons trying to go straight, duplicitious (but kind hearted) DEA agents, and bloodthirsty Mexican cartels. There is danger, suspense, shoot 'em ups, and car chases before the movie resolves with junior getting out of jail and the family disappearing into the witness protection program.

But running throughout the nearly two-hour movie are the twin themes of snitching and mandatory minimum sentencing. Snitch lays bare the workings of the drug war's informing imperative, scratching at the surface of the moral contradictions involved, and subtly brings to life the mindless cruelty of imposing lengthy mandatory minimums on nonviolent drug offenders, but it manages to do so in the middle of a mainstream cinematic entertainment vehicle.

That's just what director Ric Roman Waugh wanted, he told Drug War Chronicle in a phone interview Wednesday from Austin, where he is attending the SXSW festival. Once merely a music showcase, SXSW is now a playland for all sorts of artistic endeavors, including Hollywood action films with a message.

"The move is really a first testament to how far you go to protect your kids," said Waugh. "In the documentary, he didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He got the US Attorney to sign off and reduce his kid's sentence for a bigger bust. That really happened, and we wanted to open that up."

When he was offered the chance to rewrite the script for the movie, he jumped at the offer, he said.

"They sent me the original script and the Frontline documentary, and it was that core message that really jumped out, and we turned that into a first-person point of view movie," the stuntman turned director said. "The snitching and the mandatory minimums were integral to what we wanted to talk about. The message of the movie is that you can be for or against the war on drugs, but watch what this father went through and then think about these controversial mandatory minimums. When you walk out of the theater and realize nonviolent drug offenders are doing longer sentences than rapists and people who committed manslaughter, that's something to think about."

panel at DC Snitch screening, with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA, FAMM president Julie Stewart, Waugh, and Lawrence & Lamont Garrison
Snitch was screened last week at an event hosted by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in Washington, DC, but the film has been generating buzz among the broader public as well.

"The response has been tremendous," Waugh said. "There is a core audience that will go see a movie with a message, but that's a relatively small audience. But when you can put that message in the body of bigger action thriller and you're not hitting them over the head with it but just allowing them to experience the controversies, they're coming out and talking about it. They're talking about the world of informants, the liar's club, if you will, and what you would do if your life or the life of your child was on the line. It's created a lot of dialog, and that's what we intended.

Unlike documentaries, which typically play to art house audiences and die quiet, largely unlamented deaths, this Hollywood treatment of the issues has demonstrated some staying power.

"It's been playing for three weeks and will continue for quite awhile," said Waugh. "We've exceeded expectations for movies this size, lots of theaters are keeping us over for the fourth week, and we're even adding a few screens. People are able to relate to this in their own lives. What would happen if their kids were in harm's way? The movie tries to look these draconian laws and the system as a whole and get people to ask where they stand on them. We're only halfway there, and it's already a success. That's a real testament that you can do a message movie, you can do a commercial action thriller that's about something."

As noted above, even though Snitch opened on February 22, it's still being held over in theaters across the land. If you have an interest in drug war issues or if you get off on action flicks in general or flicks starring The Rock in particular, or better yet, if you have a friend or family member who's gaga for The Rock or a sucker for car chases, but has displayed no particular interest in or awareness of issues like snitching or mandatory minimums, it's time to have a movie date while Snitch is still on the big screen.

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