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February 01, 2014

Senate Judiciary Committee approves smarter sentencing bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee took a step toward overhauling the federal sentencing system by approving bipartisan legislation Jan. 30 by a 13-5 vote that would reduce federal mandatory sentencing levels for certain drug offenders and expand the federal safety valve to allow judges more discretion in determining sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

S. 1410, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act, also would allow approximately 8,800 federal prisoners to petition courts for a review of their cases based on the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. This provision addresses the fact that some individuals are still serving sentences that Congress determined to be unjust and racially disparate in 2010.

Even though the bill is primarily aimed at reducing mandatory sentencing for drug crimes, the committee added amendments offered by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) during markup that would create new mandatory minimums for various abuse crimes, interstate domestic violence crimes, and provision of weapons to terrorists or aiding the development of weapons of mass destruction.

The bill also contains a provision requiring the Justice Department to provide Congress with a comprehensive list of all federal criminal offenses, as well as information on associated penalties, prosecution and mens rea requirements. Also collected would be information on regulations throughout the government that are enforceable by criminal penalties. Federal agencies would be required to make the information available to the public on their websites.

The ABA, which opposes mandatory minimum sentencing, expressed support last December for the provisions in S. 1410 that would reduce lengthy sentences for certain persons convicted of nonviolent offenses.

In a Dec. 9 letter to the committee, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman pointed out that several reports have concluded that mandatory minimum sentences are a major contributor to the rising federal prison population, which has grown by an alarming rate of 790 percent since 1980.  In addition, the federal prison system is operating at almost 40 percent above capacity, and those convicted of drug offenses make up 50 percent of the prison population. Susman cited a November 2013 Urban Institute report that concluded that the legislation, if enacted, could save taxpayers more than $3 million over 10 years.

 “The Smarter Sentencing Act is a much needed first step to creating a fairer criminal justice system, while also addressing the serious safety and budgetary problems that exist in the Bureau of Prisons,” Susman wrote.

The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), will continue to seek greater bipartisan support for the legislation as they prepare to bring the measure to the full Senate for a vote.

There has been no action on the companion bill, H.R. 3382, which is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

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