WASHINGTON, D.C. – FAMM president Julie Stewart today welcomed the U.S. Justice Department’s proposals for reforming federal criminal sentencing laws and prosecutorial charging practices. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Department’s proposed reforms in a speech to the American Bar Association today in San Francisco.
“For the past 40 years, the Department of Justice, under both political parties, has promoted mandatory minimum sentencing like a one-way ratchet. Federal prison sentences got longer and longer and no one stopped to consider the costs and benefits,” said Ms. Stewart. “Today, at long last, the politics of criminal sentencing have caught up to the evidence. The changes proposed by the Attorney General are modest but they will make us safer and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the process.”
In his remarks, Attorney General Holder listed several specific steps the Department would take on its own to address current sentencing inequities and federal prison overcrowding, including:
- 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.”
- 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.” His proposal is consistent with recommendations FAMM and Human Rights Watch made in their December 2012 report, The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons.
In addition, the Attorney General 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. Senator Leahy recently announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee would hold a hearing on the Justice Safety Valve Act in September.
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.
“Bipartisan leaders in the House and Senate have introduced bills to reform the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have filled our prisons with nonviolent offenders, at enormous cost to taxpayers,” said Ms. Stewart. “The Justice Department’s support for these reform efforts is crucial. The nation’s top law enforcement officer says we can reform mandatory sentencing laws and actually be safer. That means it’s time for Congress to act.”
FAMM is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for fair, individualized, and proportionate sentences that fit the crime and the individual while protecting public safety. Contact Monica Pratt Raffanel, firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information.
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