Pubdate: Wed, 07 Oct 2015
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Los Angeles Times
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


In a rare and heartening example of bipartisanship, Democrats and 
Republicans in the Senate have united around a proposal for a major 
reform of federal criminal sentencing laws. The Sentencing Reform and 
Corrections Act of 2015 unveiled last week by Senate Judiciary 
Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a conservative 
Republican, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a liberal 
Democrat, would limit the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, 
increase the discretion of judges in sentencing and make it easier 
for defendants in drug cases to take advantage of "safety valves" 
that can spare them mandatory minimums.

Like many compromises, the bill is imperfect. It doesn't go far 
enough to reform draconian mandatory minimum sentences, often enacted 
by Congress in response to panic about perceived "waves" of 
particular sorts of crimes. In fact, the bill creates new mandatory 
minimums for some offenses.

Congress has the right to set minimum and maximum penalties for 
violations of federal law. The problem is that many mandatory 
minimums result in harsher sentences than would be imposed by federal 
judges considering all of the factors in a case. Harsh mandatory 
minimums also undermine the mission of the U.S. Sentencing 
Commission, which is charged by Congress with devising guidelines for 
judges "regarding the appropriate form and severity of punishment for 
offenders convicted of federal crimes."

Although the bill doesn't go far enough, it would offer some 
important flexibility and discretion to judges working within an 
unreasonably rigid system. The president of Families Against 
Mandatory Minimums calls the bill "the most significant pieces of 
sentencing reform legislation in a generation."

The bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for several 
offenses. But its most profound effect would be on the incarceration 
of drug offenders. It would allow some nonviolent drug offenders to 
escape mandatory minimums altogether if a judge found that their 
"score" under sentencing guidelines overrepresented the seriousness 
of their criminal record or the likelihood that they would commit more crimes.

Finally, the bill would make it easier to earn credits toward earlier 
release by completing rehabilitation programs. This represents a 
swing of the pendulum away from Congress' 1984 decision to abolish 
parole for federal prisoners. But it makes sense that the length of a 
prisoner's time behind bars reflects not only the seriousness of his 
crime but his efforts to change his ways.

A few years ago it would have seemed impossible that a bill aimed at 
reducing incarceration would win bipartisan support on the eve of 
national elections. That this bill stands a good chance of passing is 
a reflection of an overdue realization that America locks up too many 
people for too long.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom