Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
May 16, 2014
Earlier this year, bipartisan sentencing reform legislation, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act, made its way through the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate. The act would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and expand the ability of judges to use their discretion when sentencing defendants.
The fight over mandatory minimums is far from over. Prominent criminal justice practitioners have lined up on both sides of the issue.
Attorney General Eric Holder told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in April, “I’ve been proud to join many of you in supporting the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.”
A 2008 poll commissioned by Families Against Mandatory Minimums found that 78 percent of Americans feel the court is best qualified to determine sentences, not Congress. The poll found bipartisan support among registered voters on the issue of reducing mandatory minimums.
Even “tough on crime” conservatives have been clamoring for sentencing reform and fiscal responsibility when it comes to corrections spending. According to the conservative initiative, Right on Crime, state and federal spending on corrections has grown 400 percent over the past 20 years, from about $12 billion to about $60 billion. Corrections spending is currently among the fastest-growing line items in state budgets — 1 in 8 full-time state government employees works in corrections.
Conservative William J. Bennett, a former drug czar and President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of education, wrote a 2011 commentary for CNN titled, “Lock’em Up Not Always the Best Solution.” Bennett pointed out that Texas saved more than $1 billion in corrections costs, “proving ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ is not always the best solution.”
Just last month, The American Conservative argued, “Politics aside, sentencing reform is simply the right thing to do.”
Yet this week, a group of former leaders in the Department of Justice, the DEA and U.S. attorney’s offices, including William J. Bennett, urged Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to derail the Smarter Sentencing Act.
“Many of us once served on the front lines of justice … [w]e believe our current sentencing regimen strikes the right balance between Congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels, due regard for appropriate judicial direction, and the preservation of public safety.”
Why the change of heart? There are more than just a few conservatives seeking to undermine the Smarter Sentencing Act.
The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys took the rare step of opposing Attorney General Holder by releasing a letter in opposition to reform. “We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as ‘broken’ or in need of major reconstruction,” the organization said.
The director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele Leonhart, slammed the Smarter Sentencing Act at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work for DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations,” Leonhart said.
Leonhart has spent 33 years in the DEA. For decades, she has been a warrior in the war on drugs. It is tough to walk away from that fight. The truth is “tough” mandatory sentences have helped pushed federal prisons to nearly 140 percent of capacity resulting in scarce law enforcement resources being diverted to cover growing prison costs.
The federal Bureau of Prisons gets one out of every three dollars the Department of Justice’s spends. That means prosecutors, the FBI, DEA, ATF and other federal law enforcement agencies have to split the other two dollars.
It is time to pull the plug on draconian mandatory minimum sentences.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing, You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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