Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, August 7, 2013 6:55 pm

Drug sentencing reduction: Everyone wins except Charles Grassley


When Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which was designed to reduce the disparities in sentencing between cases involving powder cocaine and cases involving crack, Sen. Charles “#deerstilldead” Grassley predicted nothing but gloom and doom:

Mr. Chairman, last year, we passed the Fair Sentencing Act.  That law reduced sentences for crack cocaine, and directed the Sentencing Commission to establish changes to the Guidelines.  The law applied prospectively only.

Now, however, the Sentencing Commission is considering applying its crack cocaine guidelines retroactively.  By its own calculations, the sentences of 12,000 inmates would be reduced.   

Most of these offenders are violent and likely to reoffend.  Although these offenders are now serving time for crack cocaine offenses, the vast majority have been convicted of serious crimes in the past.  

According to the Commission, nearly 30 percent have been convicted of a crime that involved the use of a weapon, and 15 percent have been convicted of a firearms crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence.

More than 70 percent of the eligible offenders under the Commission’s proposal have been convicted of multiple serious crimes.  Some of these individuals have been convicted of murder, manslaughter, aggravated armed robbery, rape, and other serious violent offenses.  Many committed serious crimes while on parole.   

If the Commission makes its guidelines retroactive, these are the kinds of people who will be turned loose, or released sooner.  This would represent a major threat to public safety.

If everything had been as Grassley said it was, then in all fairness he wouldn’t have sounded out of touch with reality. But it wasn’t, and he did:

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the vast disparity in the way the federal courts punish crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Instead of treating 100 grams of cocaine the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes, the law cut the ratio to 18 to 1. Initially, the law applied only to future offenders, but, a year later, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply it retroactively. Republicans raged, charging that crime would go up and that prisoners would overwhelm the courts with frivolous demands for sentence reductions. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the commission was pursuing “a liberal agenda at all costs.”

This week, we began to learn that there are no costs, only benefits. According to a preliminary report released by the commission, more than 7,300 federal prisoners have had their sentences shortened under the law. The average reduction is 29 months, meaning that over all, offenders are serving roughly 16,000 years fewer than they otherwise would have. And since the federal government spends about $30,000 per year to house an inmate, this reduction alone is worth nearly half-a-billion dollars — big money for a Bureau of Prisons with a $7 billion budget. In addition, the commission found no significant difference in recidivism rates between those prisoners who were released early and those who served their full sentences. (emphasis added)

Cocaine is cocaine, and nonviolent offenders, particularly of the first-time variety, need treatment far more than they need prison. Until we wrap our heads around that, we will waste countless lives and tremendous amounts of money.

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