Bench Memos

A Quick Clarification on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

This week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” featured a pretty broad range of opinions on the topic of criminal justice reform.  The Committee has made video and written testimony from the hearing available here.

I may write more about the legislation and the broader reform movement later, but the purpose of this post is to raise an issue addressed by Senator Cornyn during the hearing. According to the hearing video, Senator Cornyn appears to say in his opening remarks that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act “does not reduce sentences for any violent offender.”

In fact, the legislation does reduce sentences for some violent offenders.

One of the most controversial provisions in the bill would reduce the mandatory minimum prison sentence from 15 to 10 years for criminals convicted of three violent felonies or serious drug crimes — such as trafficking in large quantities of dangerous drugs like heroin — who have also been convicted of a felony for unlawful possession of a firearm. In other words, the bill reduces the mandatory sentence of four-time felons by five years. And it is retroactive, so it would also offer relief for convicted criminals already in federal prison.

Take, for example, the case of Albert Burnett, the sort of violent criminal whose sentence could be retroactively reduced to ten years by this bill. Here is how Seventh Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook described Burnett and his five violent felonies:

Albert Burnett is a violent man. He has been convicted five times of aggressive felonies—murder, attempted murder (twice), aggravated battery, and domestic battery—and several times of other offenses, including twice possessing firearms made unlawful by his status as a felon. . . . Burnett stabbed a man in the back on March 8, 1988, and was convicted of attempted murder. He beat a man with a pipe on May 9, 1988, and was convicted of a second attempted murder. He was sentenced for both crimes on August 18, 1988, to concurrent terms of six years’ imprisonment, from which he was paroled on March 17, 1992. He killed a man on July 8, 1992. His parole on the two attempted-murder convictions was revoked that October, placing him back in prison. He was later convicted of murder.

Based on their comments, it seems like Senator Cornyn and his colleagues intend the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to benefit low-level, non-violent offenders. But the current draft doesn’t stop there. While I applaud the committee’s interest in criminal justice reform, conservatives on the committee should be wary of letting themselves become pawns in a broader liberal campaign to undermine determinate sentencing. 

Jonathan KeimJonathan Keim is Counsel for the Judicial Crisis Network. A native of Peoria, Illinois, he is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and Princeton University, an experienced litigator, and ...

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