Post Date: June 22, 2013
Congress’s new bipartisan task force on overcriminalization in the justice system held its first hearing earlier this month. It was a timely meeting: national crime rates are at historic lows, yet the federal prison system is operating at close to 40 percent over capacity.
Representative Karen Bass, a California Democrat, asked a panel of experts about the problem of mandatory minimum sentences, which contribute to prison overcrowding and rising costs. In the 16-year period through fiscal 2011, the annual number of federal inmates increased from 37,091 to 76,216, with mandatory minimum sentences a driving factor. Almost half of them are in for drugs.
The problem starts with federal drug laws that focus heavily on the type and quantity of drugs involved in a crime rather than the role the defendant played. Federal prosecutors then seek mandatory sentences against defendants who are not leaders and managers of drug enterprises. The result is that 93 percent of those convicted of drug trafficking are low-level offenders.
Both the Senate and the House are considering a bipartisan bill to allow federal judges more flexibility in sentencing in the 195 federal crimes that carry mandatory minimums. The bill, called the Justice Safety Valve Act, deserves committee hearings and passage soon.
A 1994 federal sentencing law allows judges to reduce sentences for drug crimes if no one was harmed during the crime and if the offender had little or no criminal history, was not a leader in organizing the crime and used neither violence nor a gun. But that law is far too narrow; all felony convictions are disqualifying for a reduction, as are some minor offenses, like passing a bad check.
The proposed bill would apply to all federal crimes with mandatory minimums, not just drug crimes, so it would include theft of food stamps and miscellaneous other lesser crimes. It would also let judges consider less-lengthy sentences for drug offenders who don’t qualify for a reduction under the current law.
The case of Weldon Angelos has long stood for the injustice of mandatory minimums. Mr. Angelos received a 55-year prison sentence in 2004 for selling a few pounds of marijuana while having handguns in his possession, which he did not use or display. In an extraordinary opinion, the federal trial judge said he had no choice but to impose that “cruel, unjust, and irrational” sentence. The Justice Safety Valve Act would give courts more leeway to avoid that one-size-fits-all approach.