Post Date: September 19, 2013
Yesterday’s hearing on federal mandatory minimum reform in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee was great!
Over 40 FAMM members traveled from as far away as Washington State, Montana, Utah, Texas, Florida, Illinois and elsewhere to be with us at the hearing. At the end of the hearing, Senator Patrick Leahy asked family members to stand and hold up pictures of their loved ones who are serving mandatory sentences. It was a powerful moment and one that reminded everyone that this is not some abstract policy dispute but a matter that affects real people.
The witnesses who testified in favor of mandatory minimum reform were excellent. Senator Leahy, who is the co-author of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, started the hearing by courageously admitting that Congress had been wrong to pass so many federal mandatory minimum laws, no matter how good their intentions. He said, “The number of mandatory minimum penalties in the federal code nearly doubled from 1991 to 2011. Many of those mandatory minimums originated right here in this Committee room. When I look at the evidence we have now, I realize we were wrong. Our reliance on a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing has been a great mistake. Mandatory minimums are costly, unfair, and do not make our country safer.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the other co-author of the Justice Safety Valve Act, highlighted the need for individualized sentences so that the time can fit the crime. He said, “Each case should be judged on its own merits. Mandatory minimums prevent this from happening. Mandatory minimum sentencing has done little to address the very real problem of drug abuse while also doing great damage by destroying so many lives.”
The committee also heard from Brett Tolman, a former federal prosecutor in Utah. Tolman criticized how mandatory minimums were used in drug cases. He said, “The threat of long mandatory minimum sentences has not resulted in the identification of high-level leaders of drug organizations by low-level targets, primarily because “kingpins” are smarter than that – they insulate themselves so the “mules” and street-corner dealers either do not know who they are or do not have enough information to lead to their discovery let alone prosecution. As a result, the long federal sentences routinely go to the lower-level targets while the “kingpins” and their drug trafficking operations continue to thrive.”
Marc Levin, the policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, testified about the great progress states across the country have made in reducing crime while reforming their sentencing laws. Mr. Levin noted that Texas has reduced its prison population and crime rate through recidivism-reducing programs and alternative sanctions that would not have been possible if the state had more mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
As was expected, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and a witness from the National District Attorneys Association raised objections to mandatory minimum reform. It was frustrating to listen to them misstate the facts, but it was a clear reminder that not everyone gets it.
“Now what?” is the question everyone is asking.
The next step is for the senators to roll up their sleeves and decide how to merge the two bills discussed today. Some senators favor the Justice Safety Valve Act, which gives judges discretion in all mandatory minimum cases. Others favor the approach of The Smarter Sentencing Act, which applies only to drug offenders.
It’s likely that some deal will be struck to merge parts of the two sentencing bills, and package them with so-called “back end” fixes, such as allowing prisoners to move from prisons to halfway houses and home detention sooner. We would welcome that because some of those changes might benefit thousands of current prisoners.
Of course, finding agreement on all these reforms will make negotiations complicated. And they will take time. But make no mistake: those of us who believe in commonsense sentencing and prison reform have the momentum and we’re going to ride it to the end! And we will keep you posted every step of the way!
In the meantime, read my written testimony that I submitted on behalf of FAMM, as well as a statement from Lisa Angelos, whose brother is serving an outrageous 55-year mandatory minimum sentence. You can also click here to read the witness testimony.
Again, thank you to the families who traveled from far and near to be at the hearing today! What a difference those faces made to personalizing the pain of mandatory sentencing laws.