A Historic Day for Sentencing Reform

Post Date: August 12, 2013

Today was a historic day in our fight for smarter sentencing laws.

For the first time in the 20+ years I have been at this, the U.S. Department of Justice has admitted our arguments are right and that eliminating some mandatory minimums will make us safer. (Oh, and it will save us billions of dollars, too.)

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder told the annual conference of the American Bar Association that the Obama administration would take immediate action to address our broken federal sentencing system and reduce federal prison overcrowding. Specifically, Holder announced that he was:

  • Directing US Attorneys “to develop specific, locally-tailored guidelines – consistent with our national priorities – for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.” In short, DOJ has finally decided to stop making every routine drug law violation a federal offense!
  • Mandating a change of the Department’s charging policies so that “certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences”; and
  • Expanding the compassionate release program by revising eligibility criteria to include “elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because FAMM (and Human Rights Watch) suggested just such a proposal in its December 2012 report, The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons.

The changes announced by the Attorney General are changes in PRACTICE, NOT FEDERAL LAW. What that means is, when a new president is elected in 2016, his or her attorney general could go back to charging everyone with mandatory minimums. That’s why we need Congress to act.

Attorney General said the DOJ would help there, too. He said the Department would support congressional efforts to change federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Specifically, Holder mentioned two bills that the Obama administration hoped to “refine and advance.” One is the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619), bipartisan legislation introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). The bill would give federal courts discretion to depart below a statutory minimum sentence when circumstances warrant. Last month, a group of 53 former federal prosecutors and judges endorsed the bill, which had already garnered support from conservative columnist George Will, former National Rife Association president David Keene, Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Justice Fellowship. In addition, The New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Toledo Blade, and Lehigh Valley Times all have endorsed the Justice Safety Valve Act.

The other bill referenced by Attorney General Holder is S. 1410, the Smart Sentencing Act, which was introduced by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). Their bipartisan legislation would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, expand slightly the existing drug safety valve, and apply retroactively the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

Senator Leahy recently announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee would hold a hearing on the Justice Safety Valve Act and mandatory minimum reform next month! So now the heavy lifting begins. (We’ve already told you how you can help us in your community this month while members of Congress are home.)

But make no mistake: the DOJ’s support is going to make a huge difference in our efforts to pass reform in Congress. After all, federal judges, defense lawyers, sentencing experts, and families like yours have known for years that mandatory minimums don’t work as advertised. Now it seems that federal prosecutors have gotten the message. Fewer and fewer people are willing to defend these unjust and counterproductive laws.

We have a long way to go until victory, but when we win, we will look back on today as a game-changing moment.

My best,

Julie

Julie Stewart
FAMM President

P.S. Some of you may wonder if the DOJ’s new policies will mean for people already serving time in prison. While the DOJ is planning to allow more elderly and ill prisoners to apply for compassionate release, the other changes will not, unfortunately, apply retroactively.