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U.S. House and Senate Reintroduce an *Even Smarter* Smarter Sentencing Act

Categories: Featured, Newsroom, Press Release, Safety Valve

FAMM applauds bipartisan effort to curb BOP costs and over-crowding, restore fairness to federal sentencing.

A new and improved version of the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 502/H.R. 920) was introduced today in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, with an even larger number of co-sponsors from both parties.

The bipartisan Senate bill (S. 502) is introduced with the support of eight diverse cosponsors, including several from border states and from states that have recently reformed or eliminated their mandatory minimum drug sentences: Democrats Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Chris Coons (D-DE) join Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) as co-sponsors; while Republicans Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Rand Paul (R-KY) join Senator Mike Lee (R-UT). In the U.S. House, the Smarter Sentencing Act (H.R. 920) is re-introduced by Reps. Raul Labrador (R-ID), Bobby Scott (D-VA), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and John Conyers (D-MI).

“Reintroduction of the Smarter Sentencing Act confirms that Congress is more committed than ever to reforming our federal sentencing laws and addressing the crisis in the Bureau of Prisons,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “While we expected this bill to be re-introduced, we are thrilled to see it has even more co-sponsors, and that it now addresses the appalling Life Without Parole statute for drug offenses in the current federal criminal code.”

Both the House and Senate versions of the Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA) contain the following elements:

  1. Makes the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which was passed unanimously by Congress in 2010, retroactive. This law partially remedied a long-standing disparity in sentences for crack cocaine offenses, but was not applied to people sentenced before the law’s effective date. The Smarter Sentencing Act would permit federal crack offenders who were sentenced prior to the FSA’s passage to petition for resentencing under the new law. (Note: This would be the only aspect of SSA that is retroactive.)
  2. Expands the “safety valve” exception to mandatory minimum drug sentences to apply to people with three criminal history points, rather than one point, as is the limit under current law. This exception permits low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with limited criminal records to be sentenced below the applicable mandatory minimum term.
  3. Reduces the 20-year drug mandatory minimum term to 10 years, the 10-year mandatory minimum term to five years, and the five-year mandatory minimum term to two years. These reductions do not apply to people who imported drugs, unless the person was a courier whose role in the offense was limited to transporting or storing drugs or money. (Note: These changes will not be retroactive if the SSA passes; Congress would have to amend the law further for prisoners currently serving mandatory minimums to petition for resentencing.)
  4. Reduces the mandatory minimum life sentence for a third drug offense to a 25-year mandatory minimum in the Senate bill, and a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence in the House bill. (Note: this change will not be retroactive if the SSA passses; Congress would have to amend the law further for prisoners currently serving mandatory minimum life sentences to petition for resentencing.)
  5. Requires the Justice Department and other agencies to compile and publicly list all statutes and regulations carrying criminal penalties, and their criminal intent (mens rea) requirements.

The bill is particularly noteworthy for changing one of the harshest mandatory minimum sentences in the entire history of the federal criminal code: the mandatory life term for drug offenders with two prior drug convictions.

Last year, the Justice Department projected that the Smarter Sentencing Act would save $24 billion over 20 years and prevent the necessity of building more than a dozen new prisons and hiring thousands of additional correctional officers.

This year’s Smarter Sentencing Act is the second sentencing reform bill introduced in the last two weeks, and the fourth bill introduced in that time that would address high prison costs, populations, and overcrowding.

“Clearly,” said Stewart, “Congress sees that sentencing reform is an essential part of getting the Justice Department budget under control, making sure we are putting the right people in prison for the right amount of time, and moving forward with a smarter approach to drug crime for the future.”