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.
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.
The 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.