POLITICS

Law Enforcement Lobby Quietly Tries To Kill Sentencing Reform

04/02/2014 03:45 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2014
Noam Galai / noamgalai.com via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Several organizations representing state and local law enforcement are quietly trying to kill a bipartisan bill that would roll back tough mandatory sentences for people convicted of federal drug offenses under legislation passed during the height of America’s drug war three decades ago.

These groups include the National Sheriffs' Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Major County Sheriffs' Association, The Huffington Post has learned.

They hope to weaken congressional support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform the nation's mandatory minimum statutes, authorizing federal judges to sentence drug defendants to less time behind bars than what current law requires. The legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, when, in a rare instance of bipartisan collaboration these days, Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona joined the committee’s Democrats in supporting the measure. Its House counterpart is still sitting in committee.

Republicans and Democrats alike have argued that the bill would allow the federal government to get control of its burgeoning prison budget and free up resources needed for other public safety initiatives, such as programs that help former prisoners find work and housing.

But Bob Bushman, president of the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, one of the groups fighting the bill, contends that state and local governments could end up bearing some of those same costs. To compensate for the federal government’s softer approach, he argues, states and counties would be compelled to lock up more people than they do now.

Major drug dealers “need to be locked up somewhere,” Bushman told HuffPost. “Some of these folks have worked hard to get to prison."

Supporters of the bill respond that this argument overlooks an important fact about federal prisons. “We have a lot of people in the federal system now who are not major dealers, people who are convicted of low-level drug, nonviolent crimes who do not deserve long sentences,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an attorney in the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

A number of law enforcement agencies have already joined advocacy groups like the ACLU in endorsing the bill. They include the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the International Union of Police Associations, the American Correctional Association, the International Community Corrections Association and the American Probation and Parole Association. Attorney General Eric Holder backs the measure as well.

Bushman and his allies, however, aren’t the first law enforcement advocates to speak out against the bill. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys have also come out against federal sentencing reform in recent months. Unlike Bushman’s cohorts, both of these groups represent officials who work for the federal government, and both have stated their positions in public.

The National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Sheriffs' Association and the other state and local groups have been working behind the scenes. Several of them had previously lined up against Debo Adegbile, the president's nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and helped block his confirmation last month.

Lobbyists with the National Association of Police Organizations and other groups visited the offices of Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.) to discuss the groups' opposition to the reform package.

A spokeswoman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police confirmed that the organization was lobbying against changes on Capitol Hill, but said it wasn't prepared to speak publicly on the topic.

Fred Wilson, an official with the National Sheriffs' Association, said his group isn't formally opposed to the legislation in principle but believes the bill needs more study -- even though it has already passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It may be [late], but our legislative folks seem to think not all is lost," Wilson said.

A letter from Bushman and his group to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- just one of several letters written by the Smarter Sentencing Act opponents that Bushman said are floating around Capitol Hill -- argues that federal policy should not be driven by "second-order effects of America’s drug problem" like incarceration costs.

If Bushman and his allies manage to undermine the bill, it won’t be the first time that members of law enforcement have successfully scaled down efforts to reform federal sentencing.

Several law enforcement organizations opposed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine. Under the previous law, the disproportionately large numbers of black men arrested for crack offenses faced far harsher sentences than their white counterparts, who were more likely to be arrested for offenses involving powder cocaine. Initially, some law enforcement groups suggested increasing the penalties for powder cocaine, rather than decreasing those for crack. Although that didn't happen, their opposition ultimately led to a compromise bill that significantly reduced, but didn't eliminate, the sentencing disparity.

Bushman said it was "a little early" to talk about whether law enforcement groups could be won over with a compromise bill this time, but said members of Congress first need to look at the "broader implications" of rolling back mandatory minimums.

Democratic congressional aides acknowledged that they have been speaking with a number of law enforcement groups about the bill and said they hoped some of the concerns raised would be addressed, but likewise noted it was still relatively early in the legislative process.

CLARIFICATION: Language has been adjusted to clarify that the law enforcement groups lobbying against the Senate mandatory minimums reform bill did not always meet with the senators themselves.

Also on HuffPost:

  • 1 Former President Bill Clinton
    AP
    Bill "Didn't Inhale" Clinton has supported decriminalizing marijuana for more than a decade and more recently has spoken out against the war on drugs.

    “I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be," he said back in 2000 in an interview with Rolling Stone. "We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment.”

    He's since spoken about the issue of marijuana and drug prohibition a number of times. Last year, he appeared in the documentary, "Breaking the Taboo," where he argued that the war on drugs has been a failure.
  • 2 Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
    AP
    Paul exhibited his libertarian tendencies earlier this year when he explained that he'd favor reforming marijuana laws to either decriminalize or reduce penalties for possession.

    “I don't want to promote that but I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake," Paul said. "There are a lot of young people who do this and then later on in their twenties they grow up and get married and they quit doing things like this. I don't want to put them in jail and ruin their lives."

  • 3 Former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)
    As a congressman, Paul took his opposition to marijuana and drug prohibition a step farther than his son has so far. He supported a number of bills that would have removed the plant from its current status as a Schedule I substance under federal law, where it is considered alongside heroin and PCP. Because his history on the topic is so expansive, just take a look at the video to the left for a selection of his comments.
  • 4 Evangelist Pat Robertson
    AP
    While the 83-year-old Robertson may say a lot of things that make him sound like a kooky old man, he's also made a few remarks to endear himself to marijuana advocates.

    "I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol," Robertson said in an interview with The New York Times in 2012. "I've never used marijuana and I don't intend to, but it's just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn't succeeded."

    Robertson has made similar remarks on his "700 Club" show before, but the Times, like many others, perhaps felt they must have misheard him.
  • 5 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
    Getty Images
    In a state of the city address earlier this year, Bloomberg made it clear that he supported a promise by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to push marijuana decriminalization. "I support Governor Cuomo's proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we'll work to help him pass it." A similar effort specific to NYC has made some progress, but faces an unclear path forward with New York lawmakers.
  • 6 Actor Bryan Cranston
    Getty Images
    Some may think of Cranston as more of a meth guy thanks to Walter White, his character on AMC's hit show "Breaking Bad," but in real life he's spoken out against current pot laws, suggesting that recreational marijuana use isn't a big deal -- and shouldn't be treated like it.

    “[T]o me, marijuana is no different than wine," he said in an interview with High Times. "It's a drug of choice. It's meant to alter your current state -- and that's not a bad thing. It's ridiculous that marijuana is still illegal. We're still fighting for it ... It comes down to individual decision-making. There are millions of people who smoke pot on a social basis and don't become criminals. So stop with that argument -- it doesn't work.”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 7 Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R)
    AP
    Unlike many politicians, Johnson, a Libertarian presidential candidate in 2012, has unabashedly admitted using marijuana. But beyond his personal history with pot, he's been an outspoken advocate for legalizing and taxing it.

    From his campaign platform:

    "By managing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco - regulating, taxing and enforcing its lawful use - America will be better off. The billions saved on marijuana interdiction, along with the billions captured as legal revenue, can be redirected against the individuals committing real crimes against society."
  • 8 Author Stephen King
    Getty Images
    King hasn't been shy about advocating for a legal marijuana industry that could give easy access to recreational users and revenue to the states.

    “Marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry," he said in an interview with High Times. "My wife says, and I agree with her, that what would be really great for Maine would be to legalize dope completely and set up dope stores the way that there are state-run liquor stores.”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 9 Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.)
    Getty Images
    Rohrabacher was a co-sponsor of the 2013 "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act," which seeks to protect marijuana users or businesses acting legally according to state marijuana laws from being prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

    While marijuana has been made legal for various uses in a number of states, the Obama administration continues to enforce federal laws across the nation. This has led to numerous raids of marijuana-based businesses, as well as prosecutions of growers and other people involved in pot.

  • 10 Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)
    AP
    Young was also a co-sponsor of the 2013 "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act."
  • 11 Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.)
    Getty Images
    Amash was also a co-sponsor of the "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act."
  • 12 Glenn Beck
    AP
    Back in 2009, when Beck had a Fox News show, he suggested that marijuana legalization could be a worthwhile solution to raging drug violence on the nation's border with Mexico.

    "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana," he said. "We have to make a choice in this country. We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we're playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border."
  • 13 Billionaire Richard Branson
    AP
    From an op-ed by Branson arguing for an end to the war on drugs:

    "Decriminalization does not result in increased drug use. Portugal's 10 year experiment shows clearly that enough is enough. It is time to end the war on drugs worldwide. We must stop criminalising drug users. Health and treatment should be offered to drug users - not prison. Bad drugs policies affect literally hundreds of thousands of individuals and communities across the world. We need to provide medical help to those that have problematic use - not criminal retribution."
  • 14 GOP Mega-Donor David Koch
    AP
    Koch may have funneled countless dollars to conservative candidates who oppose reforming marijuana laws, but back in 1980, when he was the vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, he suggested that it was "ridiculous" to consider people who smoked pot "criminals."
  • 15 Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)
    Getty Images
    In 2010, Perry told Jon Stewart that he believed in a federalist approach to marijuana laws -- that is, to allow states to determine their own approach and to tell the federal government to butt out. He's since suggested he'd be willing to support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
  • 16 Comedy Central's Jon Stewart
    Getty Images
    Stewart has made a habit of taking down politicians who exhibit an uncompromising stance on marijuana prohibition. In 2012, Stewart took New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to task for vetoing a marijuana decriminalization bill.

    “Alright, as much as I disagree, I don’t think marijuana should be illegal, but it is illegal on the federal level," Stewart began. "Christie is a former prosecutor, a man of conviction, of principle, doesn’t believe that the state should supersede federal law."

    The praise in the second sentence is a good sign that Stewart is about to shred Christie. Watch the rest of his takedown above.
  • 17 Actor Jack Nicholson
    AP
    In an interview with the UK's Daily Mail in 2011, Nicholson said that he personally still used marijuana, before making the case for ending the prohibition on pot as well as other drugs.

    "I don't tend to say this publicly, but we can see it's a curative thing. The narcotics industry is also enormous. It funds terrorism and - this is a huge problem in America - fuels the foreign gangs," he said. "More than 85 percent of men incarcerated in America are on drug-related offences. It costs $40,000 a year for every prisoner. If they were really serious about the economy there would be a sensible discussion about legalization."
  • 18 Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R)
    AP
    In a 2013 American Conservative op-ed chock full of moderate Republican views, Huntsman snuck in a call to "applaud states that lead on reforming drug policy."

    While Obama and his administration have responded to state marijuana reforms by saying they must enforce federal laws against marijuana, the president has the power to reschedule the drug, which would allow federal authorities to shift resources away from a prohibitive approach.
  • 19 Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R)
    AP
    Palin spoke out on marijuana in 2010, saying she didn't support legalizing it but also calling it a "minimal problem" for the nation.

    "However, I think we need to prioritize our law enforcement efforts," Palin said. "If somebody's gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody any harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems we have in society." While Obama has spoken repeatedly about not being interested in prosecuting small-time marijuana users, he hasn't done anything to prevent them from being busted by law enforcement in states where the drug is still illegal.
  • 20 Comedian Jimmy Kimmel
    Getty Images
    Kimmel notably took a shot at Obama while serving as host of the 2012 White House Correspondents Dinner, questioning a continued marijuana crackdown under the president's administration. He then went on to say that the issue of its continued illegality was a serious political concern for many Americans.

    (Check out the video above.)
  • 21 Former President Jimmy Carter
    Getty Images
    Carter hasn't minced words in expressing his opposition to harsh marijuana and drug prohibition policies.

    In 2012, the former president said he was fine with state legalization efforts, though he himself doesn't necessary support legalizing the drug.

    “As president 35 years ago I called for decriminalizing -- but not legalizing -- the possession of marijuana,” Carter said. “Since then, U.S. drug policies have been very horrible to our own country because of an explosion in prison populations.”
  • 22 Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli
    AP
    A staunch conservative who failed in a run for the U.S. Senate last year, Cuccinelli suggested in 2013 that he was "evolving" on marijuana legalization, and that he supported the rights of states to determine their own pot laws.

    "I don't have a problem with states experimenting with this sort of thing I think that's the role of states," Cuccinelli said, according to Ryan Nobles of WWBT.
  • 23 Columnist Dan Savage
    AP
    Savage slammed Obama for perpetuating the war on drugs while on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" in 2009.

    “The proof will be in the policy. The war on drugs has gotten a really bad rap, when you ask people if they support the war on drugs they say no ... [Obama's] budget once again has the same old drug warrior policy ... I reject the assumption that everybody who is using drugs needs treatment or is an addict and needs to get arrested ... Not all drug use is abuse.”

    He's kept up the fight for drug policy reform since.

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 24 MSNBC's Al Sharpton
    Getty Images
    Sharpton has repeatedly spoken out in favor of reforming drug laws. In 2011, he suggested that the nation had wasted trillions of dollars in an ill-fated effort that had weighed particularly heavily on the African American community.

    “We've been fighting the war on drugs since the '60s. And guess what? Trillions of dollars later, we are losing," Sharpton said during a segment on MSNBC. "When you look at the disparities in sentencing drug offenders, hasn't this kind of injustice undermined the legitimacy of our criminal justice system?”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 25 Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)
    AP
    Tancredo came out aggressively in favor of reforming marijuana laws in 2010, telling the Colorado Independent that the correct path forward was "Legalize it. Regulate it. Tax it."

    Tancredo continued, “The arguments against marijuana today are the same as the arguments against liquor years ago.”

    Years later, the former congressman agreed to smoke pot on camera with a documentary filmmaker, a deal that he later backed out of.
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