We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.
TILTING AT WINDMILLS
We had an email from an inmate this week asking whether we were aware of a bill pending in Congress that would reduce by the half sentences of nonviolent inmates over 45 years old without any shots.
The short answer is yes, there is such a bill. The long answer is that this bill – H.R. 64, Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2017 – is the mother of all retreads, having been pending in the last Congress as H.R. 71, Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2015, and the Congress before that (H.R. 62, Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2013), and the Congress before that (H.R. 223, Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2011), and… well, you get the picture.
We can track the pedigree of the Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act all the way back to the 108th Congress (2003-2004), which is when lone wolf Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) first introduced the measure. She’s been tilting at the same windmill ever since, with her one-sponsor-only bill as certain a fixture in each new Congress as is the State of the Union address.
In 2015, one commentator wrote about Rep. Jackson-Lee’s bill (and others like it) that “these bills have very little likelihood of passage since only one representative, their author, has officially signed on as supporting them. Most of them were also introduced last Congress but were shelved.”
About 10,000 bills get introduced in every 2-year Congress, and only about 3% of them are passed. With the last Congress not able to even bring the Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 to the floor – after virtually all of its retroactive provisions (that would have helped federal inmates) were gutted – the “nonviolent offender” sentencing bill had no chance of even being taken up by a committee.
The new Administration, to put it charitably, is considerably less concerned than were Administrations of the past that federal inmates may be serving unfairly long sentences. Breitbart News, a right-wing website formerly run by Trump confidante Steve Bannon, was beating the drum last Saturday for a close audit of the 1,715 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama. Most of those inmates are not released yet, but that did not deter Brietbart News, which quoted former federal prosecutor Bill Otis as saying, “What Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department needs to do now is track the hundreds of fellows who got these pardons and commutations. With overall recidivism rates for drug offenses already being 77%, I think we have a pretty good idea, but the public should get specifics: How many of these guys re-offend; what’s the nature of the new crime; were there related violent crimes in the mix as well; and how many victims (including but not limited to addicts and overdose victims) were there?”
We monitor the bills being introduced in Congress every week. So far, nothing approaching the 2015 SCRA has been introduced.
Just last week, The Hill reported that Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to crack down on violent crime. Sessions has tapped Steven Cook, a federal prosecutor and outspoken opponent of criminal justice reform, to lead Sessions’ new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.
Alex Whiting, faculty co-director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School, was quoted as saying,
Obama moved away from that approach, and I think in the criminal justice world there seemed to be a consensus between the right and left that those policies, those rigid policies of the war on drugs and trying to get the highest sentence all the time, had failed… I don’t know if he is really going to be able to persuade the department to follow his lead on this.
Whiting questions whether Sessions would be able find 94 prosecutors to appoint as U.S. Attorneys who will back his new tough on immigration crime/violent crime approach.
With this attitude prevailing in the Justice Department, any surge on sentencing reform (not to mention interest in executive clemency) is extraordinarily unlikely to occur. Nevertheless, a salute to Rep. Jackson-Lee, who makes Don Quixote look like a quitter.
Breitbart News, How Federal Agencies Keep Americans In The Dark About Crime Statistics (Apr. 16, 2017)
The Hill, Sweeping change at DOJ under Sessions (Apr. 16, 2017)
– Thomas L. Root