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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)

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“The Senate bill would drastically reduce mandatory minimum drug sentences for all drug traffickers, even those who are armed and traffic in dangerous drugs like heroin, and provide for the early release of dangerous drug felons currently incarcerated in federal prison.”

 Senator Jeff Session (R-AL), May 11, 2016

Busted! We gave Senator Sessions’ statement FOUR BARS because it is FALSE. The bill (The Smarter Sentencing Act) does not reduce all mandatory minimum drug sentences and it allows but does not require courts to release some prisoners early.

The bill does not reduce all mandatory minimum drug sentences, and the reductions are not drastic.  

  • Approximately half of all federal drug offenders receive either five- or 10-year mandatory minimum sentences each year, and the bill does not reduce either of these sentences.
  • The bill also does not reduce the 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that result in death or serious bodily injury to others, or the mandatory minimum sentences that apply to the highest-level drug traffickers convicted of running a “continuing criminal enterprise.”
  • The bill would reduce only two mandatory minimum drug sentences slightly, but would also apply them to more people:
    • The existing mandatory minimum life-without-parole sentence would become a mandatory minimum 25-year sentence for a third drug offense.
    • The mandatory minimum 20-year sentence would become a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence for a second drug offense.
    • These 15-year and 25-year mandatory minimum drug sentences would apply to a new group of defendants who previously would not have received them: those who have a prior conviction for a broadly-defined “serious violent felony.”

Senator Sessions is correct that the reduced mandatory minimum sentences would apply to “even those who are armed and traffic in dangerous drugs like heroin.” However, his statement leaves out important context. First, while the bill reduces the mandatory minimum, the minimum is just that: a minimum. Courts are free to sentence dangerous, gun-toting individuals above the minimum and, in cases where a defendant plays a major role or uses violence, the sentencing guidelines judges rely on will recommend a sentence longer than the statutory minimum. Second, Senator Sessions does not mention that there are other federal laws that require longer sentences for drug dealers who possess guns, and the bill would not eliminate those laws.

The bill will not provide early release or reduce sentences for dangerous drug offenders.

  • There are currently 195,000 people in federal prisons, and about 85,000 of them (46 percent) are drug offenders. Of these 85,000, the bill would permit about 7,000 (8 percent) to seek a sentence reduction in federal courts.
  • An Urban Institute study for the Charles Colson Task Force found that, among drug offenders currently in federal prisons,
    • 77 percent had no prior serious history of violence
    • 75 percent were not sentenced for use or possession of a weapon during the drug offense, and
    • Only 14 percent were sentenced for using or threatening violence during the drug offense.
  • Sentence reductions under the bill would not be automatic, or guaranteed. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), one of the bill’s authors, explains: “All you get under this bill is a hearing in front of the same federal judge who put you in prison in the first place, in front of the same prosecutor who prosecuted you, who can consider all the facts and circumstances in determining whether it is something he ought to grant.” The judge at that hearing would be able consider whether the prisoner exhibited good behavior in prison, participated in rehabilitation and drug treatment programming, and other relevant factors before deciding whether to reduce a sentence. Judges can deny sentence reductions if they deem the person a danger to the public.

 FAMM is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. FAMM does not endorse any candidate or party in any election, and it does not make any campaign contributions. The information here is not provided and should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any particular candidate or party. 

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