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Congress Forms "Over-Criminalization" Task Force

Ten members of the House Judiciary Committee have agreed to form an Over-Criminalization Task Force to review the expansion of the federal criminal code and make recommendations for paring it down. There are roughly 4,500 federal crimes on the law books, with new ones being added at a rate of about 50 a year.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) is one of 10 task force members.
This proposed review of federal criminal laws is the first since the 1980s, when the number of federal crimes on the books was about half what it is now. The task force will conduct hearings and investigate issues around over-criminalization and will have the opportunity to issue reports to the Justice Committee on its findings and policy recommendations.

Task force members include Reps. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), Karen Bass (D-CA), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), George Holding (R-NC), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Raul Labrador (R-ID), Jerold Nadler (D-NY), Bobby Scott (D-VA), and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). The group contains both prominent drug law reformers, such as Cohen and Scott, and prominent drug warriors, such as Gohmert and Sensenbrenner.

Among possible topics for the task force are federal drug laws and sentences in general and federal marijuana prohibition in particular. The group could also explore the issue of mens rea, or criminal intent, particularly in relation to the expansion of the use of conspiracy laws since the late 1980s. The use of those laws has led to low-level offenders, including some who were not even part of a drug trafficking enterprise, being sentenced to years or decades in federal prison -- sentences that were supposed to be reserved for high-level offenders.

"As former chairman and long-serving member of the Judiciary Committee, I've seen first-hand just how muddled the criminal code is," said Sensenbrenner. "It's time to scrub it clean. The Over-Criminalization Task Force will review federal laws in Title 18, and laws outside of Title 18 that have not gone through the Judiciary Committee, to modernize our criminal code. In addition, I reintroduced the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act [not posted as of Tuesday] today, which would reform Title 18 of the US Code, reduce the existing criminal code by more than one-third, and update the code to make it more comprehensible."

"Unduly expansive criminal provisions in our law unnecessarily drive up incarceration rates," said Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the committee's ranking Democrat. "Almost one-quarter of the world's inmates are locked up in the United States, yet Americans constitute only five percent of the world population. In addition, the incarceration rate for African Americans is six times that of the national incarceration average. I welcome the work of the over-criminalization task force in analyzing this serious issue."

"Although crime is primarily a matter for states and localities to handle, over the last 40 or so years Congress has increasingly sought to address societal problems by adding criminal provisions to the federal code," said Scott. "There are now over 4,000 federal criminal provisions, plus hundreds of thousands of federal regulations which impose criminal penalties, often without requiring that criminal intent be shown to establish guilt. As a result, we are hearing many complaints of overuse and abusive uses of federal criminal laws from a broad-based coalition of organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Today, we are establishing a bipartisan task force on over-criminalization to assess issues and make recommendations for improvements to the federal criminal system, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on this worthy endeavor."

"This Task Force is a step in the right direction and could propose recommendations to significantly alleviate mass incarceration and racial disparities in the federal system," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The establishment of this Task Force is long overdue for the drug policy reform movement. It is past time for Congress to re-examine marijuana laws, conspiracy laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the appropriate role and use of the federal government’s resources."

Washington, DC
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

Bill Filed to Create National Marijuana Commission

A bill that would establish a National Commission on Marijuana Policy was introduced in the US Congress last week. Filed by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), House Bill 1635 seeks a commission that would undertake a comprehensive review of the costs and benefits of current federal marijuana prohibition, as well as examining how federal policy should interact with state laws that have either approved medical marijuana or legalized marijuana outright.

Steve Cohen (house.gov)
Cohen's proposal is inspired by the 1971 Shafer Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, which was commissioned by President Richard Nixon but then shelved when it recommended decriminalizing marijuana. The commission report resulted in decriminalization in a handful of states in the 1970s, before marijuana reform went into the deep freeze during the Reagan era.

"Regardless of your views on marijuana, it's important that we understand the impact of current federal policy and address the conflict with those state laws that allow for medicinal or personal use of marijuana," said Congressman Cohen. "This conflict is only going to continue to grow over the next few years and we must provide certainty to the millions of individuals and businesses that remain caught in a web of incompatible laws. A national commission would provide us with the information we need to create sensible policy going forward."

Joining Cohen in backing the bill are cosponsors Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Sam Farr (D-CA), Jim Moran (D-VA), and Jared Polis (D-CO).

"The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that a national conversation is needed when it comes to our country’s marijuana policies, but so far that conversation has been largely one sided," said Erik Altieri, communications director for NORML, which worked with Cohen on drafting the bill. "It is time for federal lawmakers to listen to the voice of the majority of Americans who want to see change to our nation’s marijuana laws and for them to take part in that dialogue."

"We have clearly reached a point where the American people want marijuana prohibition to end," said Steve Fox, national political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The states have been taking the lead, but the federal government must catch up. It is no longer a question of whether the federal government should allow states to enact their own marijuana policies. Of course, it should. The question now is how to reconcile state and federal laws. This commission bill proposes a study and a discussion that is long overdue."

The proposed commission would consist of 13 members: five appointed by the president; two appointed by the Speaker of the House; two appointed by the House minority leader; two appointed by the Senate majority leader; and two appointed by the Senate minority leader.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow patients with qualifying conditions to use medical marijuana with recommendations from their physicians. In November, voters in Colorado and Washington State approved measures making marijuana legal for adults 21 and older and directing state regulatory bodies to create regulations for businesses to cultivate and sell marijuana to adults.

Washington, DC
United States

Congressman Predicts Current Congress Will Legalize Hemp

Earl Blumenauer at Brookings marijuana legalization forum, April 2013
I attended a forum on marijuana legalization at The Brookings Institution Monday, where Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), one of a handful of Congressional champions of marijuana law reform, was one of the speakers. Along with his general optimism for where the issue is going, Blumenauer predicted that the current Congress -- #113, in office this year and next -- will legalize hemp growing.

That may be a less bold prediction than in the past -- with the highest-ranking Republican senator supporting hemp now, Mitch McConnell, it should be more likely -- but it's still a fairly bold prediction, when one thinks about just how long Congress has refused to do anything for this utterly no-brainer of an issue. One of Blumenauer's reasons was that a House bill to legalize hemp growing, H.R. 525, also is being sponsored by a Kentucky Republican, Thomas Massie.

You heard it here first. (Unless you also watched the Brookings forum.)

Illinois House of Representatives Passes Medical Marijuana Bill

Illinois State House
Word just came out that the Illinois House has passed medical marijuana legislation, after several tries. Now it has to go to the Senate. Phil wrote about this and other medical marijuana news in his weekly update.

Illinois going for medical marijuana could be what gets Sen. Durbin involved. Durbin is the second highest ranking Democratic senator, and so it could be a big advance. Durbin supports medical marijuana, and was a cosponsor in 2004 of "Truth in Trials" legislation to allow it in states that allow it. But 2004 was a long time ago, and the Senate has seen little in the way of medical marijuana legislation to advance.

Location: 
Springfield, IL
United States

House Members File Bipartisan "Respect States' Marijuana Laws Act" [FEATURE]

A bi-partisan group of US representatives led by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) Friday introduced legislation that would end the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have either legalized it or adopted medical marijuana laws. That would bring 18 medical marijuana states and two legalization states -- Colorado and Washington -- out from under the shadow of the Controlled Substances Act when it comes to marijuana law reform.

Dana Rohrabacher
The bill is H.R. 1523, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. It was not yet available online as of the original press time, but is now.

"This bipartisan bill represents a common-sense approach that establishes federal government respect for all states' marijuana laws," said Rohrabacher. "It does so by keeping the federal government out of the business of criminalizing marijuana activities in states that don't want it to be criminal."

Joining Rohrabacher as cosponsors of the bill were Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Don Young (R-AK).

That brings to at least five the number of marijuana reform bills introduced in the 113th Congress, six if you count an industrial hemp bill. Three of those bills deal with medical marijuana, one with the ability of states to tax marijuana commerce, and one would end federal marijuana prohibition.

Reps. Polis, Blumenauer, Rohrabacher, and others also introduced that latter bill, House Bill 499, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, H.R. 499, which would set up a federal regulatory process -- similar to the one for alcohol -- for states that decide to legalize. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has said he will hold hearings to examine Colorado and Washington’s new marijuana laws and explore potential federal reforms.

Marijuana law reform efforts in the Congress are being propelled not only by the continuing spread of medical marijuana laws and the impressive victories in Colorado and Washington -- each state saw 55% of voters approve legalization -- but also by ever-mounting evidence that public opinion nationwide is swinging in favor of legalization, and against federal interference in states undertaking marijuana law reforms.

A Pew poll released earlier this month had support for marijuana legalization at 52%, the highest ever for a Pew poll and the first time a Pew poll showed majority support for legalization. Five other recent opinion polls have shown support for legalization hovering at the tipping point, with two of them just under 50%, one at 50%, one at 54%, and one at 57%.

That same Pew poll also found considerable skepticism about enforcing the marijuana laws, with 72% agreeing that "government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth" and 60% saying that the federal government should not try to enforce marijuana laws in states where it is legal.

"The people have spoken and members of Congress are taking action," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bill takes conservative principles and applies them to marijuana policy; in terms of the national debate it’s potentially a game-changer."

"This bill is a win for federalism and a win for public safety," said Neill Franklin, a former Maryland narcotics detective and now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "In a time of bitter partisanship, it is quite telling that both Republicans and Democrats are calling for respect for the reform of marijuana laws. Polls show this is a winning issue for politicians, and change is inevitable. We applaud those legislators who, rather than trying to impede this progress, stand with the vast majority of Americans who believe these laws should be respected."

"Marijuana prohibition is on its last legs because most Americans no longer support it," said Steve Fox, national political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "This legislation presents a perfect opportunity for members to embrace the notion that states should be able to devise systems for regulating marijuana without their citizens having to worry about breaking federal law. If a state chooses to take marijuana sales away from cartels and the criminal market and put them in the hands of legitimate, tax-paying businesses, it should be able to do so without federal interference."

"We've reached a tipping point," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, "and it is time Congress acknowledge what voters, law enforcement, and state officials have been telling us for years: the feds should stop wasting money interfering when the states are more than capable of regulating marijuana effectively."

Even though this and the other federal marijuana reform bills have been introduced with bipartisan support, their future in the Republican-dominated House this session is murky at best. Some key committee chairs, such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), head of the House Judiciary Committee, are very hostile to any reform efforts. But the pressure is mounting.

Washington, DC
United States

Celebrities Urge Obama Forward on Drug, Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

A coalition of more than 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials, and civil rights and civil liberties advocates Tuesday sent an open letter to President Obama urging him to redouble his efforts to shift from a punitive, repressive federal criminal justice policy to one emphasizing prevention and rehabilitation.

Russell Simmons, 2012 Tribeca Film Festival (courtesy David Shankbone via Wikimedia)
The US is the world's leading incarcerator, with more than 2.3 million people behind bars. The US leads the world both in absolute numbers of prisoners and in prisoners per capita, with 715 per capita, comfortably leading the nearest per capita contenders, Russia (584) and Belarus (554).

Of those 2.3 million people behind bars, more than 500,000 are charged with drug offenses. While the number of prisoners being held by the states and the number of drug offenders held by the states have begun to decline slightly in recent years as state-level policy makers grapple with economic problems, the federal prison population continues to grow, driven in part by drug offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were some 95,000 federal drug war prisoners at the end of 2011, nearly half the federal prison population. That's up from only 70,000 a decade ago.

"It is critical that we change both the way we think about drug laws in this country and how we generate positive solutions that leave a lasting impact on rebuilding our communities," said hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who helped organize the star-studded effort. "We need to break the school to prison pipeline, support and educate our younger generations and provide them with a path that doesn’t leave them disenfranchised with limited options."

In the letter, the coalition praised Obama for criminal justice reforms he had undertaken, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced (but did not eliminate) the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, but urged him to do more. "Mr. President, it is evident that you have demonstrated a commitment to pursue alternatives to the enforcement-only "War on Drugs" approach and address the increased incarceration rates for non-violent crimes," the letter said. "We believe the time is right to further the work you have done around revising our national policies on the criminal justice system and continue moving from a suppression-based model to one that focuses on intervention and rehabilitation."

The coalition called for specific reforms.

"Some of the initial policies we recommend is, under the Fair Sentencing Act, extend to all inmates who were subject to 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity a chance to have their sentences reduced to those that are more consistent with the magnitude of the offense," the letter said. "We ask your support for the principles of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (Senate Bill 619), which allows judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences when they deem appropriate."

The letter also implicitly chided the Obama administration for its failure to make much use of his power to pardon and commute sentences. In fact, Obama has pardoned prisoners or commuted sentences at a much lower rate than any of his recent predecessors. He has granted only 39 pardons and one commutation (of a terminally ill cancer patient) in five years in office, while failing to act on such deserving and well-publicized cases as that of Clarence Aaron, who is now 20 years into a triple life sentence for a cocaine deal in which he was neither the buyer, seller, or supplier of the drugs.

"We ask that you form a panel to review requests for clemency that come to the Office of the Pardon Attorney," the letter said. "Well-publicized errors and omissions by this office have caused untold misery to thousands of people."

The letter also applauded Obama's "staunch commitment" to reentry programs for prisoners who have finished their sentences and urged him to expand those transition programs, and it urged him to support the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education (Youth PROMISE) Act (House Bill 1318), "a bill that brings much needed focus on violence and gang intervention and prevention work."

The coalition also asked for a meeting with the president.

"We request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these ideas further and empower our coalition to help you achieve your goals of reducing crime, lowering drug use, preventing juvenile incarceration and lowering recidivism rates," the letter said.

From the Hollywood community, signatories to the letter included: Roseanne Barr, Russell Brand, Jim Carrey, Cedric The Entertainer, Margaret Cho, Cameron Diaz, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Woody Harrelson, Ron Howard, Eugene Jarecki, Scarlett Johannson, the Kardashians, LL Cool J, Eva Longoria, Demi Moore, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Chris Rock, Susan Sarandon, Sarah Silverman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, and Mark Wahlberg.

From the music community, signatories included: Big Boi of Outkast, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Chuck D, DJ Envy, DJ Pauly D, Ani Difranco, Missy Elliot, Ghostface Killah, Ginuwine, Jennifer Hudson, Ice-T, Talib Kweli, John Legend, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Natalie Maines, Nicky Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, RZA, and Angela Yee.

From the civil rights and civil liberties community, signatories included: Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition leader Neill Franklin, Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous, National Urban League leader Marc Morial, Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann, Rev. Al Sharpton, ACLU head Anthony Romero, Families Against Mandatory Minimums head Julie Stewart, and Dr. Boyce Watkins.

From the faith community, signatories included:  Bishop James Clark, Bishop Noel Jones, Bishop Clarence Laney, Bishop Edgar Vann, Dr. Iva Carruthers, Deepak Chopra, Father Michael Pfleger, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Nina Mandel, Rev. Jamal Bryant, Rev. Delman Coates, Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, Rev. Dr. Fredrick Haynes, Rev. Michael McBride, Rev. Dr. W Franklyn Richardson, and Rev. Barbara Skinner Williams.

Media and academic figures who signed on include: CNN's TJ Holmes, Radio One's Cathy Hughes and Alfred Liggins, former MSNBC host (and now hydroponic farmer!) Dylan Ratigan, "The New Jim Crow" author Michelle Alexander, Michael Eric Dyson, Naomi Klein, Julianne Malveaux, and Spelman College's Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Also signing were businessmen Virgin Airlines magnate Sir Richard Branson, US Black Chamber of Commerce head Ron Busby, and St. Louis Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom, elected officials Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL), and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), and professional athletes Brendon Ayanbadejo, Lamar Odom, Isaiah Thomas, and MikeTyson, among others.

"The letter is intended to be a respectful appeal to the Obama administration asking that we develop productive pathways to supporting families that have been harmed by the War on Drugs," said Dr. Boyce Watkins, author, entrepreneur, and current scholar in residence in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University. "Countless numbers of children have been waiting decades for their parents to come home, and America is made safer if we break the cycle of mass incarceration. Time is of the essence, for with each passing year that we allow injustice to prevail, our nation loses another piece of its soul. We must carefully examine the impact of the War on Drugs and the millions of living, breathing Americans who've been affected.  It is, quite simply, the right thing to do."

"So called 'tough on crime' policies have failed our nation and its families, while 'smart on crime' policies work," said NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous. "When we know that drug treatment is seven times more effective than incarceration for drug addicts, basic human decency demands our nation makes the switch. The fate of hundreds of people and the children who need them home and sober hang in the balance. Great progress is being made in states from New York to Georgia with strong bipartisan support. The time has come for all of us to do all that we can. The future of our families, states, and nation demand it."

Will President Obama respond to this clarion call for action? Stay tuned.

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.)

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