5:19pm January 31, 2014

Three New Mandatory Minimums Added to Major Criminal Justice Reform Bill


As the Senate Judiciary Committee moved the Smarter Sentencing Act to the Senate floor, Senate Democrats allowed three new mandatory minimum penalties to be included in the bill.   The Smarter Sentencing Act would significantly lower mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.  It would also allow judges to use more discretion in sentencing for non-violent drug crimes.  The bill, along with the Justice Safety Valve Act, is a major change in direction in criminal justice reform.

Mandatory minimum sentencing ushered in an age of historic levels of incarceration in America over the last 30 years. The U.S. continues to lead the world in the rate of incarceration.  There are now over 2.2 million people behind bars at an annual cost of over $68 billion per year. The federal prison population has grown over 800% since 1980.

RELATED: NAACP’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet features incredible stats

There were three new mandatory minimum penalties added to the Smarter Sentencing Act yesterday by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).  All but two of the ten Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the three new mandatory minimums — one, which focused on terrorism, was agreed to by voice vote.

drug-facts2The only three Senators who voted against the new mandatory minimum penalties were Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, Democrat Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tea Party Republican Mike Lee.  That fact should be duly noted by anyone who cares about criminal justice policy in America.  Even the bill’s primary sponsor,  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) a Democrat, voted in favor of the two new mandatory minimum penalties unlike Republican Sen. Lee, who voted against them all. 

“The American Civil Liberties Union supports the base bill but opposes all new mandatory minimums,” the ACLU said in a press release.  Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) made a similar statement saying, ““Although FAMM would prefer the total repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, this bill is a necessary compromise that will help address many of the drivers of our exploding prison populations.”

There has been a major policy shift on mandatory minimum sentencing with everyone from George Will to Sen. Rand Paul and Ed Meese opposing them. Those conservatives have joined lawmakers like Reps. Bobby Scott and John Conyers who have been opposing them for years. Rep Scott is the primary sponsor, along with Republican Raul Labrador, of the House version of the Smarter Sentencing Act.

The three mandatory minimum amendments were authored by Grassley focused on sexual abuse, terrorism and domestic violence.  Ironically, Grassley voted against the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.  The law focuses over a billion dollars on prosecution of violent crimes against women.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to work on the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would give judges more discretion in sentencing, next.

About the Author

Lauren Victoria Burke
Lauren Victoria Burke
Lauren Victoria Burke is an opinion journalist, comms expert and political analyst focused on justice reform policy. She created Crewof42.com, a blog that covers the work of Black members of Congress, in 2009. Ms. Burke was a staffer for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and Director of Communications for Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN). She has had a very diverse career in politics and media and appears regularly on NewsOneNow with Roland Martin, Hardball and Up on MSNBC, WVON in Chicago, WURD in Philadelphia and WOL and WHUR in Washington, D.C. She is currently the Managing Editor of Politic365 and a contributing writer for TheRoot and NBC Black where she writes opinion and analysis. Additionally, Ms. Burke has been a contract photographer for Associated Press since 2004. She has authored three books of photography including two on President Obama's 2008 campaign for the presidency and one with Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee. Ms. Burke was born in the Bronx, New York and grew up on Long Island. She holds a B.A. in History from The American University. Here e-mail is: LBurke007@gmail.com. Twitter: @LVBurke. Instagram: LVB325.


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One Comment

  1. ana

    Mandatory Minimums: The Drug War and Mass Incarceration; Attorney General Eric Holder and The Obama Administration should implement a way to reduce the budget of The Federal Bureau of Prisons,which grew by[4%] in this year of budgetary austerity…They should find a way to”not”open that New Federal Supermax Prison in Illinois,or a way to close existing torture facility like the one in Florence,Colorado…They should look for ways to use federal law enforcement and corrections funding to pressure States to close their Supermaxes,or encourage them to provide educational opportunities and decent medical care to the[2]million plus in State and Local Prisons and Jails…These are practical measures that Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama have the power to do…After the[2010]passage of The Fair Sentencing Act,and Court decisions which say its provisions ought to be retroactive back to the[1980s] the sentences of the[5,000,[19,000],or[12,000] depending on the degree of retroactivity applied,who have already served excess prison time under the old and outlawed[100 to 1] crack vs powder cocaine penalties…Everyone will be held Responsible and Accountable.

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