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The Police Are Right About One Thing: Sentencing Reform

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Law enforcement organizations are calling on both major presidential candidates to publicly support an overhaul of the criminal justice system -- including sentencing reform -- to reduce crime and to improve relations between police and citizens. The announcement comes in the aftermath of repeated failed attempts in Congress to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation.

Civil liberties groups have long sought comprehensive sentencing reform. They thought they had a real chance in 2014 when a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014 (S. 1675). The bill easily passed the Judiciary Committee. A similar bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 (S. 1410), also passed committee. Both bills died on the floor when then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to call them up for a vote. A year later, the new Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), also refused to allow a vote.

Both bills, which would have eased sentencing guidelines, done away with mandatory minimum sentences for most drug crimes, and offered incentives for federal prisoners that would have allowed early release for good behavior and for taking GED or vocational classes, had the support of groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative Heritage Foundation, former prosecutors, police and prison guard organizations, victims' advocates, prominent conservatives, and faith groups.

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For many progressives, the unfairness of the current system calls out for redress. For many conservatives, it simply costs too much to incarcerate so many people.

Here's how the current system works. Let's say that "James" is involved in a heroin case along with a group of other people. The charge is conspiracy to distribute one kilo of heroin. Let's also say that James is a first-time, nonviolent offender. He has no gun in his case. Because he has no criminal history, James falls under Criminal History Category I on the federal sentencing guidelines chart. Prosecutors prefer not to go to trial. (Indeed, 98.2 percent of all federal inmates take a plea, rather than go to trial, according to ProPublica.) If James takes a plea, his federal guideline would put him at a level 25: 57-71 months in prison. But James says he's innocent. He never imported heroin, and he never sold or used it, although some of his friends did. He pleads "not guilty," reasoning that a jury will see the truth. He goes to trial.

Unfortunately, though, when the government claims a "conspiracy," it pretty much has to prove only that the people involved knew each other, not that they personally committed each and every crime in the conspiracy. James is found guilty. When he goes for sentencing, he gets a level 25. But he also now faces "enhancements." Enhancements are additions to a sentence that are given for a variety of reasons. James gets an extra two "points," or levels, for "failure to accept responsibility." (He argued his innocence, after all.) He gets another two points for "obstruction of justice" because he wouldn't testify against his co-defendants. Although he's never been prosecuted for a serious crime before, he did have a DUI in college. That's an extra four points for "criminal history," even though it doesn't raise his Criminal History Category to a II. The feds say that because James didn't pay any federal taxes on the proceeds of the heroin, that's another two points. At sentencing, instead of the 57-71 months that he might have gotten (or the 36-48 months he was probably offered as part of a plea deal) James goes from a level 25 to a level 35, which means 168-210 months. He'll likely do around 15 years.

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This happens every day in America, where judges have no concept of time, prosecutors get promoted based on their success in putting people in prison, and Congress has mandated mandatory minimum sentences.

The United States already has 25 percent of the world's prison population. The country desperately needs sentencing reform. The system cries out for it. All the relevant associated interest groups support it. The political will for it exists. Now we need a president to stand up to two intransigent politicians -- McConnell and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the likely successor to Reid -- and to tell him that the country has waited long enough. We need prison reform now.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

 

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John Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA and two years in a federal prison for blowing the whistle on the agency's use of torture. He served on John Kerry's Senate Foreign Relations Committee for two years as senior investigator into the Middle (more...)
 

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