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Former Federal Officials Cite "Serious Concerns" About Sentencing Reform
(Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

Former Federal Officials Cite "Serious Concerns" About Sentencing Reform

Brian Blake

A group of forty former senior federal law enforcement leaders, including two attorneys general, two White House drug czars, and former federal prosecutor and New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, released a letter Thursday to express their “serious concerns” about a sentencing reform bill the Senate is currently considering. A recent poll suggests these former leaders’ sentiments have the public’s backing.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S. 2123, passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in late October. The bill, which is not currently scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor, seeks to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for violent crime and drug trafficking offenses. The lack of a scheduled floor vote could be because the bill arrives at an inopportune time, as heroin is making a deadly comeback and violent crime is on the rise in numerous large cities across America.

The letter, addressed to Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Harry Reid (D-NV), highlights the incredible gains made against crime in recent decades and pushes back against the notion driving the legislation that the “system of justice” is broken.

“Mandatory minimums and proactive law enforcement measures have caused a dramatic reduction in crime over the past 25 years, an achievement we cannot afford to give back,” the leaders note.

They cite a recent statement by FBI Director James Comey that “we have hit historic lows for violent crime recently, and if we let it slide back, we will need to explain to those who come after us what we did or didn’t do to let that happen.”

The letter raises a number of concerns with the bill and how it would inhibit law enforcement’s ability to go after dangerous criminals, with the greatest concerns being the reduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and the retroactivity provisions of the bill:

“The bill will reduce penalties for armed career criminals, reduce penalties for serial armed violent criminals (like carjackers, bank robbers and kidnappers), reduce penalties for repeat high-level drug traffickers and weaken the tools used by federal prosecutors to dismantle drug trafficking organizations. Worse, the bill will apply those changes retroactively to thousands of armed career criminals, serial armed violent offenders and repeat drug traffickers already in prison, making them eligible for early release.”

With regard to mandatory minimums, the former law enforcement leaders argue that the bill’s changes will make it “harder for federal agents and prosecutors to build cases against the leaders of narcotics organizations and gangs.” This, they say, is because the threat of mandatory minimum sentences, with its current built-in “safety valve” that allows relief from the mandatory minimums for those that provide useful information on those higher up in the criminal organization, have been “an essential tool to encourage cooperation to break down drug conspiracies, large criminal organizations and violent gangs.”

Recidivism, or the tendency of felons to commit crimes after their release, is also a concern of the former officials. They cite a Bureau of Justice Statistics study that “found overall recidivism rates at nearly 77 percent” for released state prisoners. Citing a Time magazine report on heroin’s resurgence as “the worst addiction crisis the country has ever seen,” the letter then notes that “heroin addiction is spawned by heroin traffickers – the same population that will receive lighter penalties under the bill and will receive earlier releases.”

The growing drug epidemic is a concern of Americans and a poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation shows that they are not in the mood to go lightly on the drug traffickers that help fuel it. The poll found that 58 percent of the American people believe that we aren’t doing enough about drug trafficking when asked what came closer to their view, “that we have too many drug traffickers in prison for too long, or that we don’t do enough to keep drug traffickers off the street?” Only 30 percent responded that our nation treats drug traffickers too harshly.

The letter concludes by requesting Congress “await the results of the significant federal sentencing initiatives that are already underway” to assess their impact, “before opening the doors of our federal prisons further through proposals like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.”

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