Saturday, November 14, 2015

Conyers: Time to finally end mandatory sentencing minimums

By John Conyers, Jr.

Dean of the U.S. House
of Representatives
John Conyers, Jr.
Over most of the last 30 years, our federal and state governments have been engaged in a wrongheaded and short-sighted "war on crime," focusing on punishment to the exclusion of prevention and rehabilitation.
The principal culprit is so-called "mandatory minimum" sentencing laws that that require judges to impose minimum prison terms regardless of the nature and circumstances surrounding the offense, the role of the offender in the crime, and the history and characteristics of the offender. Even if everyone involved in a case — the arresting officer, prosecutor, judge, and victim — believe that the statutorily specified prison term would be unjust, a judge must impose a mandatory minimum sentence.
The net result of these policies is that the U.S. incarcerates 25% of the world's prisoners despite having only 5% of the world's population. There were approximately 500,000 inmates in America in 1980, today there are 2.2 million.
Minorities have suffered disproportionately under these laws. One in 10 black men in their 30s is incarcerated on a given day, and more than 60% of our prisoners are racial and ethnic minorities. Michigan spends a higher proportion of its general fund budget on prisons than any other state, and devotes more money to prisons than higher education.
Fortunately, notwithstanding the present unprecedented partisan gridlock over economic and budget issues, there is genuine opportunity for criminal justice reform in Congress. Last month, my Republican counterpart, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and I along with Ranking Subcommittee Member Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, introduced bipartisan legislation designed to alleviate the burden of mandatory minimum sentences.
Among other things, our legislation, the "Sentencing Reform Act of 2015":
  • Expands the so-called "safety valve" to mandatory minimum penalties by giving judges the discretion to more accurately assess the criminal history of offenders seeking relief. (Current law has a limited this option to a very narrow range of non-violent drug offenders to be sentenced below a mandatory 5-year sentence.)
  • Creates a second safety valve authorizing judges to reduce sentences for certain offenders from a 10-year to a 5-year mandatory minimum.
  • Reduces the mandatory minimum sentence levels for repeat offenders under certain firearms and drug laws, and applies retroactively for specified offenses.
  • Reduces the mandatory life without parole sentence for a "third strike" drug or violent felony offense to a minimum term of 25 years in prison.
The bipartisan bill Goodlatte and I have introduced is a promising first step in the right direction, which if enacted, would make a tangible difference in the lives of thousands of individuals and their families.
I sincerely hope that enactment of this critical bill will lead toward elimination of all it minimum sentences.
We will continue working on several additional bipartisan bills, including legislation dealing with police accountability in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and other tragedies, civil asset forfeiture reform, and prison and prison reentry reform.
It has taken the nation — and our elected representatives — far too long to understand that indiscriminately locking up our citizens is not only unfair, but counterproductive. Now is the moment to work together to begin to set things right.

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