Reintroduction of Smarter Sentencing Act Has Broad Bipartisan Support
By Derek Gilna
The Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA), first introduced in 2014 and reintroduced into the current, two-year Congressional session, with many co-sponsors from both major political parties, is the newest manifestation of the country’s disgust with the current state of the federal criminal justice system. There has been both rioting and peaceful protests around the country against that system. While DOJ and
officials trumpet a paltry reduction of 5000 in the federal prisoner count, to
215,000, tens of thousands of prisoners still languish, and their families and
communities suffer unnecessarily.
We are all familiar with SSA’s provisions, which give some degree of power back to the judges to mitigate the burden of mandatory minimum sentencing, and curb some the system’s worst abuses. I like its chances of passage. Like any struggling addict or alcoholic, however, the federal criminal justice system continues to be “hooked” or “drunk” on the big-business of mass incarceration. Over-zealous prosecutors continue to harass defendants and their over-worked public defenders or underpaid appointed counsel into one-sided plea agreements, and punish those exercising their Constitutionally guaranteed right to jury trial with long sentences and added enhancements, and allow hearsay evidence and “Ghost Dope” to affect sentencing.
However, public support for this system has collapsed. Even the aged Senator Charles Grassley of
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a roadblock to sentencing reform,
is feeling the heat. Over 50 Iowa
pastors recently signed a bill imploring him to support federal sentencing
reform. “The time has come...to consider the various bipartisan bills, reach
consensus, and enact broad reforms that respect ..dignity, …limit
disproportionate sentences,…and encourage reintegration of (released
prisoners),” they wrote. Iowa
Also feeling some hear, the US Attorney in Chicago recently tossed dozens of drug cases based upon “stash-house” entrapment (where agents trolled and encouraged known felons to burglarize houses they claimed held drugs) when they were criticized by more than one federal judge for unfairly targeting minorities. The US Supreme Court recently struck down a
law requiring North
monitoring of certain defendants after they had already completed their
sentences, a violation of Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable
search and seizure.
There has also been new public pressure on improving on better programming in the
system, which in the past in the BOP has
often merely constituted “check off the box” instead of actual education. A new
bill introduced recently calls for the return of Pell grants to help pay for
prisoner college studies. More and more lawsuits are being filed regarding poor
medical treatment (including several by this office), and pressure on the BOP
to actually implement the compassionate release policy already on its books
(including a recent one granted from Butner by me), as well as constant
pressure on the BOP bureaucracy to actually
do its job as spelled out in their program statements. It is only the beginning.