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Chairman Grassley Secures WH Support for Sentencing Reform

By José Santos Woss, August 8, 2018

The White House has agreed to include sentencing reforms in the ongoing criminal justice reform negotiations.

Chairman Grassley Secures WH Support for Sentencing Reform

Last week we received good news! In a White House meeting with senior advisors and key senators, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, the President agreed to support including some key sentencing reform provisions in moving criminal justice reform legislation. These provisions come from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA). The President and his adviser, Jared Kushner, support the FIRST STEP Act. The FIRST STEP Act makes some reforms around individuals serving time in prison and around release from prison. However, that legislation fails to address some of the worst parts of the system: mandatory minimum sentences. There is still a lot we do not know. Like how things will move forward and what the final product will look like. Also, will there be enough support in the Republican Conference to secure Senate floor time for a vote? The President’s support will help secure the Leader’s commitment.

The negotiated sentencing reform pieces, as reported in The Hill, are as follows:

I. Reduces the additional mandatory minimum sentence for a firearm ** stacked on top of other mandatory minimums (often drugs).** The additional firearm mandatory minimum sentence stacked on top of other mandatory minimums can range from one sentence of 5-years to multiple 30-year add on sentences. One notable case resulted in multiple add-ons for unused firearms that resulted in a 55-year sentence for a father in Utah.

II. Expands the Judicial Safety Valve. This provision allows for added judicial discretion where a judge can sentence below the mandatory minimum sentence under certain conditions.

III. Limits prosecutors’ ability to request additional mandatory minimum ** sentences for old cases at the time of sentencing.** This particularly harmful mandatory minimum results in mandatory minimums being applied atop of already long and harmful mandatory minimums.

IV. Applies the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactively. People sentenced to excessive and much higher mandatory minimums for crack versus powder cocaine (under the outdated 100-1 ratio) could petition for a lower sentence under the current ratio of 18 to 1. FSA retroactivity would have the biggest effect and help the most people. It would give more than 3,100 people the opportunity to seek relief from an unfair and outdated prison sentence. Retroactive application of FSA gives incarcerated people an opportunity to petition a judge for a lower sentence for crack under the new 18-1 ratio.

That of God dwells in each human being. We are each capable of redemption and extreme prison sentences spent in cages are an affront to human dignity. Excessive mandatory minimum sentences separate families and break apart communities. Mental health challenges and addiction comingle with incarceration and poverty, compounding and resulting in further incarceration. Sentencing reform has already seen broad and growing bipartisan support in recent years. The addition of the White House’s support is welcome and important news.

It is vital that we continue to urge the Senate to pass sentencing reform as the core of criminal justice reform. The White House meeting and reported negotiations are promising. If Congress can act on it, there is real potential for a good bill that will achieve some real justice in the system.

José Santos Woss

  • Legislative Manager, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

José is the Legislative Manager for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. He leads FCNL’s work on criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform (election integrity), and police militarization. He co-Chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.