The Least Congress Can Do on Criminal Justice Reform

06/15/2016 09:45 am ET

Five and a half years ago, I wrote an op-ed in this space in which I urged Congress to apply retroactively the recently passed Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA). The FSA reduced the indefensible disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences from 100:1 to 18:1. Every member of the U.S. Senate, including Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), supported the FSA because they recognized that there was simply no scientific or public safety rationale for the disparity and yet ample evidence of its racially discriminatory effect. Yet five and a half years later, Congress still has not approved FSA retroactivity.

There are approximately 4,900 individuals still serving the crack cocaine sentences Congress repudiated when it passed the FSA. They are the people whose cases we used to illustrate why the law needed to change, yet they did not benefit.
After the FSA passed, the U.S. Sentencing Commission fixed all of the non-mandatory minimum crack sentences by lowering its guidelines consistent with the new law. But the Commission only has authority to changes its guidelines, not mandatory minimum punishments set by Congress and found in statutes.

Today, legislation to make the FSA retroactive is included in a broader sentencing reform bill, which was introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and is pending in the Senate. FAMM supports bold sentencing reform, including elimination of all mandatory minimums. Accordingly, we have strongly endorsed various sweeping reform proposals introduced in this and previous Congresses by Senate leaders Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Rand Paul (R-KY), and House champions Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA). While Congress has struggled to act, despite historically high levels of public support for repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, at FAMM’s urging and with FAMM’s support, has done all it can to reduce drug sentences and make those reductions retroactive for tens of thousands of federal prisoners. Notably, those who received retroactive relief from the Commission have reoffended at a lower rate than those who served their full sentences.

We recognize that bipartisan consensus and compromise are essential to passing criminal justice reform through the Congress. Because of the hard work of key senators and outside advocates from across the ideological spectrum, we believe that Senator Grassley’s bill would receive more than the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and would probably receive closer to 70 votes on final passage. But in an election year, especially a presidential election year, consensus is not enough. The bar is much higher. Unanimity, not broad consensus, is required. Without unanimity, any reform bills will require floor time and will be subject to hostile amendments that could significantly weaken them.

Unanimity is lacking today because of a number of factors. A couple of vocal but mistaken members of Congress insist that any drug sentencing reform will endanger the public, an election-year fearmongering tactic that has no basis in fact. There is also strong disagreement about whether to include minimum criminal intent requirements (“mens rea”) in any final reform bill. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) support broad mens rea protection; the White House and most Democrats strongly oppose it. The congressional calendar presents an equally daunting challenge. We are in June of an election year. The Senate only plans to be in session for roughly 40 days between now and the November election.

None of these challenges should stop us from seeking the boldest, most meaningful reforms we believe are needed. But we should be mindful that presidential election years are often the time when Congress succumbs to the temptation to make criminal sentences worse, not better.

For 4,900 people serving sentences Congress itself deemed unfair, members of the Senate and House need not wait a day longer. If prospects for passing a larger package of criminal justice reforms do not dramatically improve in the coming days, Congress should at least pass narrow legislation making the FSA retroactive. Those serving discredited, excessive sentences for crack offenses should not be forced to wait any longer for justice. The Sentencing Commission’s evidence suggests that giving retroactive relief to those serving excessive crack sentences does not harm public safety. To the contrary, making the FSA retroactive would save lives, money, and right a terrible wrong. That is a legacy both parties can be proud to share with their voters this Fall.

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