Julie on Justice: Reasons to be Happy

Post Date: April 1, 2014

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

My kids love the song “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams from the movie Despicable Me 2. They play it over and over, and now it’s stuck in my head.  But I’ve decided that’s not such a bad thing because the lyrics pretty much capture what I’m feeling these days, “Can’t nothing bring me down, My level’s too high, Because I’m happy…”  

And that’s how I feel!  There is a lot to be happy about when it comes to sentencing reform!  I’ll give you the highlights:

First, the U.S. Senate is getting ready to vote on the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1410, a bill that would reduce drug sentences and save an estimated $3 BILLION over ten years.  Specifically, the bill would cut mandatory sentences in half for drug offenses; make retroactive the reductions in crack cocaine sentences that were passed in 2010; and slightly broaden the number of drug cases in which a judge could go below the mandatory minimum sentence. This bill has impressive bipartisan support in the Senate.  It’s wonderful to hear the media point out that one of the few issues in Congress that has support from the right and the left is sentencing reform! Of course, law enforcement is trying to stop the bill from passing, so we’ve still got our work cut out for us before the expected early-May vote in the Senate.

Over at the U.S. Sentencing Commission, they are considering whether to lower drug sentences by two levels, essentially reducing the average drug sentence by 11 months!  FAMM was invited to testify about this issue a couple of weeks ago (we were the only advocacy group asked to testify) and I told the Commissioners that we absolutely support this reform.  So does the Attorney General of the United States; he went to the Commission to say so in person!  We expect the Commission will vote to send the amendment to Congress on May 1st and then decide this summer whether to make the lower drug guideline retroactive to apply to drug offenders already in prison.  If they do, it could mean that up to 100,000 federal prisoners could apply for reduced prison sentences!  

Talk about happy! I would be ecstatic if the Commission votes to make the lower drug guidelines retroactive!  It’s not a slam-dunk, however, because the sheer number of people who could benefit makes the Commission worry that the courts will be over-burdened by requests for sentence reductions.  But as we have said before, justice should not be a matter of convenience.  Making “drugs minus two” retroactive is the right thing to do.  We will be pressuring the Commission to do the right thing and will want you to join us in that effort this summer.

Other great news is that the Department of Justice is looking for federal prisoner cases to send to the President for clemency! You may have read that the Deputy Attorney General (the second in command at the Department of Justice) has publicly asked lawyers in the country to help him find federal prisoners deserving of clemency.  The Deputy Attorney General also asked FAMM and five other organizations to help him find cases and lawyers to represent them.  After years of begging the Pardon Attorney’s office to grant commutations to prisoners, I have to say it was weird and wonderful to find myself sitting next to the Deputy Attorney General as he asked us to help him find cases worthy of clemency!  This brave new world points to how far we have come since I started FAMM in 1991!  

We are now working with the other groups to set up a system to help identify and lend a hand to prisoners who are serving sentences that meet the criteria the Justice Department will soon release.  We have a pretty good idea that it will be targeted at federal drug offenders who are serving life or near-life sentences, are nonviolent, didn’t have leadership roles and – importantly – if sentenced today would likely not receive the same sentence, due to changes in sentencing laws and policies.  Stay tuned for more on this very happy news!

And more good news comes out of FAMM’s Florida project!  Florida is poised to change their mandatory gun sentencing laws that put people in prison for 20 years for simply firing warning shots to protect themselves or their families.  The laws have led to outrageous punishments for people like Orville Lee Wollard.  Working with the NRA, FAMM has championed the reform of these mindless sentencing laws.  Our Florida project director, Greg Newburn, reports that our prescription drug reform bill in the state is also close to passage.  That absurd law has led to the 15-year incarceration of people like Todd Hannigan. The Florida legislative session will end in April, and if the wind stays at our back, we will see both of these sentencing reform bills get signed by the Governor! 

So, you can see why I’m happy!  Sentencing reform has become mainstream! When I started FAMM 23 years ago, not many people in power wanted to talk about lowering sentences for anybody.  Now, we’ve got Republicans and Democrats joining forces to support bills that make sentences smarter and fair! 

I knew we had reached the point of no return recently when Texas’s conservative Governor Rick Perry told a conservative crowd at a conservative conference (CPAC ) that although he disagrees with just about everything President Obama and Attorney General Holder say, he agrees with them on prison and sentencing reform.  That was music to my ears. “Happy” music, in fact!

My best,

Julie Stewart
FAMM President and Founder

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