Law & the Courts

Reduce Prison Sentences, but Not for Violent Offenders

(Mirko Vitali/Dreamstime)
The release of dangerous criminals shows why Congress needs to act on criminal-justice reform.

Starting this month, thousands of federal inmates are set to be released early from federal prison, including serious violent felons and criminal aliens. This action is not the result of legislation passed by the people’s elected representatives in Congress. Rather, it is a result of a decision made by unelected officials appointed to the United States Sentencing Commission.

In early 2014, the Sentencing Commission adopted an amendment to reduce the sentences for certain drug-trafficking and distribution offenses, including trafficking offenses that involve drug quantities substantial enough to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. The Sentencing Commission made these reductions retroactive, applying them to tens of thousands of inmates in the Bureau of Prisons’ custody who are serving sentences for drug offenses. Since then, thousands of federal inmates have filed motions with their courts of jurisdiction for sentence reductions and have been granted approval for early release.

The problem with the Sentencing Commission’s changes to federal drug-sentencing requirements is that they are applied without regard to the inmate’s criminal history and public safety. Consequently, criminals set to be released into our communities as a result of the Sentencing Commission’s amendment include inmates with violent criminal histories, who have committed crimes involving assault, firearms, sodomy, and even murder.

There is growing consensus in Congress that certain federal drug sentences, such as mandatory life imprisonment for a third drug-trafficking offense, are unnecessarily harsh and contribute to prison overcrowding and a ballooning federal prison budget. However, the Sentencing Commission is going about sentencing reform the wrong way. Its new guidelines blindly apply sentencing reductions to all federal inmates without considering the impact an early release would have on the safety of our communities.

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The Sentencing Commission’s unilateral changes show why it is imperative that Congress act on sentencing reform and other criminal-justice issues. If Congress does not act, the matter is left in the hands of an entity that has demonstrated it cannot be trusted to act responsibly. Fortunately, leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate agree that our nation’s criminal-justice system needs improvement and are working on bipartisan legislation to do just that.

#share#In the House of Representatives, the Judiciary Committee, which I chair, is taking a step-by-step approach to criminal-justice reform and will introduce several bills that address individual issues within the criminal-justice system, including over-criminalization, sentencing reform, prison and reentry reform, improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil-asset-forfeiture reform. Recently, I joined several leaders of the committee in introducing our first piece of bipartisan legislation to reform federal sentencing requirements and simultaneously prevent serious violent criminals from getting out early.

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That bill — the Sentencing Reform Act — makes the criminal-justice system more fair, efficient, and fiscally responsible. It reduces certain mandatory minimums for drug offenses, including cutting the third-strike mandatory life sentence to 25 years and the second-strike mandatory sentence from 20 to 15 years. The bill also broadens the mechanism for non-violent drug offenders to be sentenced below the mandatory minimum sentence and provides judges in those cases with greater discretion in determining appropriate sentences. These changes will help save taxpayer dollars and take an important step toward reducing crowding in our federal prisons and the amount of federal taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration each year.

Our criminal-justice system is in need of reform, but we must ensure that changes to the system do not compromise the safety of the American people.

Most important, the bill contains major limitations on the retroactive application of these reforms, to ensure that serious violent criminals serve the full time for their crimes in federal prison and do not get out of prison early. This is in stark contrast with what the Sentencing Commission has done to federal sentencing requirements.

Additionally, the Sentencing Reform Act contains an important tool to fight the current heroin epidemic. It allows for an enhanced penalty of zero to five years for trafficking in fentanyl. Fentanyl is a highly dangerous drug 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, which is often combined with heroin and has led to a surge of overdose deaths across the country.

While the fruit of the Sentencing Commission’s reckless changes is laid bare beginning this month, the House Judiciary Committee will move forward with the Sentencing Reform Act so that sentencing reform is done responsibly. Our criminal-justice system is in need of reform, but we must ensure that changes to the system do not compromise the safety of the American people.

— Representative Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. 


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