The Return of Criminal Justice Reform

by C.J. Ciaramella – Congress failed to pass a bill reforming mandatory minimums last year; now two senators want to try again. Two senators announced on Wednesday that they will reintroduce a bipartisan bill to overhaul federal sentencing guidelines. The legislation failed to pass Congress last year, much to the disappointment of criminal justice reform groups. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, originally introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) and Dick Durbin (D-Il.) in 2015, would reduce the mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines for repeat drug offenders without serious violent felonies and would broaden the “safety valve” exception to federal mandatory minimum sentences. It would also add new mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic abuse and for providing support for terrorists, while strengthening penalties for certain other crimes. Grassley and Durbin say they will reintroduce the bill this year, although they did not say when. “While the political landscape in Washington has changed, the same...

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Obama Administration Breaks 1,000 Commutations Threshold (VIDEO)

by Scott Shackford – Another 79 granted mercy over federal drug war sentences. It took almost his entire presidency to get it rolling, but President Barack Obama will have ended his term granting more than 1,000 federal prisoners mercy from incredibly long federal sentences placed on them due to severe drug war laws. The president took to Facebook to announce another 79 commutations. He used the story of Ramona Brant, who was indicted and imprisoned for life over her relationship with a man who was involved in a drug ring. She was released back in February and filmed a video talking about her experiences earlier in the year. Obama commented on Facebook: Ramona’s story should serve as a reminder to all of us that we need to reform the sentencing laws for drug crimes in this country. It makes no sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be serving decades, or...

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Obama Shortens 102 Sentences, Including 33 Life Terms for Nonviolent Drug Offenses

by Jacob Sullum – The president has granted 774 commutations so far, 97 percent of them in the second half of his second term. The crime that sent Ricky Minor to federal prison for life involved a little more than a gram of methamphetamine, plus supplies for making more: pseudoephedrine pills, acetone, matches, and lighter fluid. There was no evidence that he made meth for anyone but himself and his wife, and under Florida law he probably would have received a sentence of two or three years. But a series of nonviolent drug offenses, none of which resulted in prison time, made him a “career offender” under federal law, triggering a mandatory life sentence for attempting to manufacture methamphetamine. “I was sitting in the courtroom when it happened,” Minor’s mother recalled in an interview with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “and it was all I could do to stay seated...

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Obama Announces New Round of Commutations (VIDEO)

by Scott Shackford – The deadline is rapidly approaching for federal prisoners to request mercy The White House announced a new round of presidential commutations, 58 of them, of people in federal prison for drug crimes. The announcement came from President Barack Obama himself in a somewhat self-congratulatory post on Medium. (but then, aren’t self-congratulatory posts Medium’s stock in trade?) He notes that he has commuted the sentences of 306 individuals, more than the last six presidents combined. He writes: While I will continue to review clemency applications, only Congress can bring about the lasting changes we need to federal sentencing. That is why I am encouraged by the bipartisan efforts in Congress to reform federal sentencing laws, particularly on overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Because it just doesn’t make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in...

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Supreme Court Makes Important Mandatory Minimum Ruling Retroactive

by Scott Shackford – Some in federal prison may see sentence reductions A Supreme Court decision yesterday may help a number of inmates currently in federal prison reduce their sentences if they were convicted of a narrow set in crimes. The Supreme Court heard Welch v. United States in March and ruled on the case in less than a month. That’s a quick turnaround for them, but that is likely because this case was clarifying the outcome of another case decided in June 2015. In that initial case, Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled, 8-1, that a particular mandatory minimum sentencing trigger of the federal Armed Criminal Career Act of 1984 was unconstitutionally vague and tossed it. But just because a court ruling changes sentences doesn’t necessarily mean mercy for those who are already serving time. The Welch case was to determine whether this sentencing change should be retroactive. The justices...

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Bipartisan Bill Would ‘Reserve Federal Prisons for Serious Offenders’

by Jacob Sullum – The SAFE Justice Act tackles overcriminalization and over-federalization Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) unveiled an impressive package of criminal justice reforms that they have dubbed the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015. According to a summary by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the SAFE Justice Act would eliminate federal penalties for simple possession of drugs in jurisdictions subject to state law, reserve mandatory minimum sentences for high-level drug traffickers, make the shorter crack sentences enacted in 2010 retroactive, clarify that gun-related mandatory minimums can run consecutively only “when the offender is a true recidivist,” expand the “safety valve” for nonviolent drug offenders, encourage more use of diversion and probation, and offer prisoners time reductions in exchange for their participation in job training and other programs aimed at reducing recidivism. FAMM says the bill “restores discretion to judges to determine to...

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