Prison sentencing reform hits snag in Senate

Despite forceful advocacy from the White House, bi-partisan support in the Senate and approval from the Judiciary Committee late last year, the future of a plan to overhaul the criminal justice system remains uncertain.

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton fears the proposal will lead to the release of thousands of violent offenders.

“It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons.  I think it’s no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question . . . [but] I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do,” Cotton told Politico.

The assumption underlying this claim, Cotton insists, is language in the bill:  The measure allows the original prosecutor and presiding judge to evaluate a qualifying inmate’s sentence. The judge would exercise discretion in reducing the term if called for after a thorough review.

Cotton’s concerns, shared by an increasing number of GOP senators, are not entirely unfounded: Recidivism torments our criminal justice system with 71.3 percent of re-arrests occurring among violent offenders.

However, not all GOP senators embrace Cotton’s skepticism:

“It’s not true.  I’d say, please read the bill and listen to people like [former Attorney General] Michael Mukasey, who makes the point, which is a critical point, that there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who supports the bill.

Alternatively, the bill does strengthen sentences for violent drug offenders with prior convictions and would only apply to approximately 3,900 of the 2.2 million inmates incarcerated in our prison system.

Analysis

Judges, juries and prosecutors commit errors frequently in the initial stages of justice. 

While the notion of our prisons being emptied of violent offenders is deeply disturbing, this bill does not apply to an overwhelming majority of violent wrongdoers in the custody of the federal government.

While “fix it” tends to be a political loser, a bill which would allow a careful re-appraisal of a sentence imposed by those who are most familiar with the circumstances, in these cases the judge and primary prosecutor, without the trespassing of naive jurors or overpriced defense attorneys flush with preposterous excuses on behalf of their clients, may correct previous injustices or alleviate unnecessary sentences.

This bill covers a small fraction of our prison population.  While it is both noble and understandable Cotton and some GOP senators are fearful a handful of convicted felons released may return to crime, parole boards deliver far worse to our streets at the completion of a full sentence.

 

[Politico] [nij.gov] [Photo courtesy theweek.co.uk]