OCTOBER 05, 2015
President Obama and his supporters are hailing a controversial bill to reduce prison sentences as a major bipartisan breakthrough, but federal prosecutors warn that it will weaken their ability to bring dangerous drug traffickers to justice and will result in the release of thousands of convicted drug traffickers and violent felons.
The president has long pushed to reduce jail time as a way of ending racial discrimination because minorities, mostly blacks, are disproportionately incarcerated for longer periods, especially when it comes to drug-related offenses. So back in 2010 he signed a law that for the first time in decades relaxed drug-crime sentences he claimed discriminated against minority offenders. This severely weakened a decades-old law enacted during the infamous crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged urban communities nationwide in the 1980s.
This month the president is salivating over a bill floating around in the U.S. Senate that will drastically soften federal prison sentences more broadly, not just for crack-related convictions. Known as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, the bipartisan plan would reform criminal justice by eliminating “harsh” sentencing laws, including a “three-strikes” measure approved by Bill Clinton in 1994 mandating life sentences for felons convicted a third time. The mandatory minimum for a second drug or violent felony would be slashed from 20 to 15 years and the mandatory minimum for gun possession by convicts would be reduced from 15 to 10 years. Criminals who repeatedly possess guns in the course of drug trafficking will also get a break under the new law because it shaves a decade off the mandatory minimum, from 25 years to 15. If the bill passes thousands of convicts serving time for crack offenses can leave jail early.
The law would also focus on rehabilitation by creating a new method of categorizing inmates according to an assessment that determines the likelihood of recidivism. Convicts classified as low risk can earn up to 10 days of credit that can be applied towards their release from prison to a halfway house. Convicts can earn the credit by participating in recidivism reduction programs that include prison jobs, educational, domestic abuse or faith-based classes. Those convicted of white collar or economic crimes would be excluded from the early release program, presumably because most are not minorities and the new law was created with the intention of ending racial disparity.
The scary part is that the legislation was introduced by nine lawmakers from both political parties, including the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley. In a press release Grassley touted the measure as a product of thoughtful bipartisan deliberation. “This historic reform bill addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade,” the Iowa senator stated, adding that the measure will reduce recidivism while protecting communities from violent criminals.
The federal prosecutors that work hard to put these criminals away disagree, clarifying that drug trafficking is inherently violent and therefore the phrase “non-violent drug offenders” repeatedly used by the law’s supporters is a misnomer. The proposed law “should be of concern to all Americans,” said Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys. “It will weaken the ability of federal prosecutors to bring dangerous drug traffickers to justice and it will result in the release of thousands of previously convicted drug traffickers and violent felons.” Cook and his group of federal prosecutors also expressed concern about the timing of the law. “Why, in the midst of a violent crime wave and drug overdose epidemic killing our most vulnerable citizens and tearing apart our families, is there such a rush to return dangerous criminals to our streets more quickly and weaken the tools prosecutors need to bring international drug traffickers and violent criminals to justice?”
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