The urgency for passing criminal justice reform has steadily increased and has recently been brought to the forefront of current events with numerous states and millions of voters demanding action from Congress. This sample criminal justice essay explores proposed reforms to the criminal justice system.
The proposed criminal justice reform bill
On October 1st, 2015, Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 in the Senate. This bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by Senators:
- Richard Durbin (D-IL)
- Cory Booker (D-NJ)
- Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
- Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
- Mike Lee (R-UT)
- Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
- John Cornyn (R-TX)
- Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
The objective of the bill is to reduce the number of federal mandatory requirements related to drug and gun sentence terms, in addition to making the new requirements retroactive; increase the “safety valve” exception to the mandatory minimum sentences law, cause the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to become retroactively effective, and grant federal prisoners the ability to secure credits for time spent successfully attending rehabilitation programs.
On October 22, 2016, the bill was approved by a bipartite vote of the Judiciary Committee on a ballot of 15 to 5. In order for the bill to become law, there are a number of steps that must take place. The bill must successfully pass a vote by the entire U. S. Senate, it must be introduced in the U. S. House of Representatives, ultimately pass a vote by the full House, and finally be signed by the President.
Facts regarding the legislation
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is only applicable to federal prisoners (Galston). The United States has over 2.3 million offenders incarcerated in prisons:
- State prisons — 59% or 1.3 million individuals
- Local prisons — 32% or 744,592 individuals
- Federal prisons — 9%, or 210,567 individuals
Half of those offenders in federal prison are drug offenders. Most of the drug convicts, about 95%, are specifically drug traffickers based on the guidelines they were sentenced under. This leaves approximately .8% of the country’s crime trends are classified for unlawful drug possession (Galston).
However, when viewing through the prism of the Sentencing Commission’s culpability ranking, for example, high-level suppliers and importers versus mules, couriers or pilots, less than half of the convicts, or 41%, are high-level offenders. The majority, or 56%, are low-level offenders who play a relatively insignificant role in the drug trade.
The Sentencing Reform and Correction Act deals with this issue directly (Galston). Sections 102 and 103 of the Act scales down terms for the low-level convicts but allows the high-level offenders, who distribute, import or supply, to serve their sentences as originally described. In addition, there is an exception, for those low-level offenders who used violence, a firearm or were a member of a gang or other enterprise. Further, the low-level offender’s activity must not have resulted in the distribution to a minor, or serious violence or death (Galston).
How the Bill will impact the criminal justice system
The trajectory of the bill recently came under fire by freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) who took exception to the legislation (Ferner). Cotton, who described the bill as criminal leniency legislation that would have a detrimental impact on America, is spearheading the conservative effort to torpedo the measure (Kim).
Cotton, described by some as a “hawkish upstart,” further indicated that the sentencing reform bill would simply cause the early release of thousands of criminals who commit violent acts and minimize terms for future offenders (Lee). Former disgraced Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, under former N.Y. Mayor Giuliani in 2000-2001, sent a contentious letter to Cotton on February 16, 2016, that blasted the rookie Senator’s argument as “empirically flawed” (Ferner).
Kerik hammered Cotton’s views stating that federal mandatory minimum sentences have essentially nothing to do with the murder and violence statistics in the United States. Rather, Compstat, a management intelligence and strategy program initiated by the NYPD in the 1990s and employed by other agencies nationwide, was responsible for the plummet of violent crime (“What is CompStat?”).
Analyzing crime trends and applying them to the new law
Compstat is a management framework that allows law enforcement agencies to monitor and accurately analyze crime data and delineates resulting patterns and problems. As a result of the depth of analysis, management is better able to rapidly deploy their officers and resources to the locations that will have the greatest crime impact (Ferner).
On the issue of recidivism, Kerik wrote, Cotton was off the mark. He posited that there was no relationship between burgeoning recidivism and mandatory minimums, indicating that the converse was actually the case (Ferner). The inhumane conditions and treatment in prisons institutionalize convicts, hardening them and making them better at engaging in illicit behavior.
Prolonged incarceration and increased crime rates
Kerik suggested that prolonged incarceration is similar to college for offenders, the longer they stay the more advanced their degree. Kerik encouraged Cotton to rethink his perspective because giving harsh mandatory sentences to low-level criminals, he argues, is simply not beneficial to the perpetrator or to society (Ferner). Since low-level criminals will get out of prison at some point, sending them to college to learn another criminal behavior is simply not the better choice.
Cotton’s rationale may not be the only hurdle faced by proponents of criminal justice reform. Controversy in Congress is percolating around two other issues – wrongful convictions and the burden of proof (Foran). House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) proposed that support for a reform bill will not be forthcoming unless it is paired with modifications to how the nation’s criminal code arrives at criminal intent, a point of view vigorously opposed by the White House.
Goodlatte, in accord with conservative and libertarian groups, indicated that unless the issue of criminal intent is on the table in conjunction with criminal reform, anyone interested could just consider the House door closed on the subject (Foran). His concern is protecting citizens against receiving charges for crimes they committed without their knowledge. In the Senate, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is also pushing for the inclusion of criminal intent reform.
The liberal take on criminal justice reform
The Obama Administration and liberal supporters do not back the proposed changes. In his final State of the Union Address, Obama talked about the need for criminal justice reform and the end of mandatory sentencing, as long as criminal intent and evidence were weighed equally. Criminal intent, or mens rea, means guilty knowledge.
Expanding the mens rea requirement, they postulate, will increase the burden of proof, and might make criminal prosecutions more difficult. In addition, lax criminal intent burdens would allow big business to get away with illicit actions, such as committing fraud, infecting foods, or dumping garbage, after which organizations could feign lack of awareness (Foran).
Proponents of the bills would like the legislation to pass before Presidential campaign season makes it impossible to for any important bill to pass (Foran). In fact, both sides are in agreement that now is better than later, but Goodlatte is not necessarily troubled about a possible stall.
Criminal justice reform, surprisingly, is a subject of supreme bipartisan agreement (Haney). Across almost all lines, men and women, young and old, Latinos and African-Americans, Republicans and Democrats, political advocacy organizations from the ACLU to Koch Industries, everyone agrees that the United States incarcerates too many people.
This mass incarceration of low-risk offenders results in an overflowing federal prison system that is becoming more and more expensive to operate every year (Haney). Voters agree that mandatory minimums should stop and judges should be allowed to make determinations based on the circumstances of the case.
Weldon Angelos case as an example
Weldon Angelos is an example of mandatory minimum sentencing laws gone terribly wrong. He was a Utah musician gaining national recognition as an artist (“Weldon Angelos”). He established his own record label called Extravagant Records and was making a name for himself in the industry. He even wrote songs with Snoop Dogg. Law enforcement suspected that he was a gang member and large-scale trafficker, so they set up a drug buy with a confidential informant who was actually an acquaintance.
The confidential informant purchased a one-half pound of marijuana on the first two buys. The informant said that there was a firearm visible in his car on the first sale and that he was wearing a leg holster on the second sale. Officers searched Angelos’ home and found additional firearms, paraphernalia, and items that were said to be evidence of laundering and trafficking (“Weldon Angelos”).
Angelos was indicted on 20 counts that could have given him over 105 years in jail. Ultimately, Angelos was sentenced to 55 mandatory years in federal prison (“Weldon Angelos”). Weldon’s community cried out in public outrage. His own judge stated that the sentence was absurd and compared his sentence to that received by child rapists, which would be eleven years, second-degree murder, which would be fourteen years, and aircraft hijacking, which would be twenty-four years.
Alternative scenarios in Angelos case
If Angelos had been prosecuted in state court, he would only have received two years. Numerous judges and prosecutors jointly filed an amicus curiae brief, a friend of the court document file in civil court, in support of the judge declaring his sentence as unconstitutional. The judge wrote an opinion, 65 pages in length, unsuccessfully requesting President Bush to commute Angelos’ sentence to 18 years or less.
Weldon, 25 at the time of sentencing, would not get out until he was 80 years old. Angelos’ sons and daughter have grown up without him – his children, all teenagers now, his wife left him, his father died, and he is serving the first part of his sentence in California, which means his family is unable to visit with any degree of regularity (“Weldon Angelos”).
Angelos’ sister has posted a petition on Change.org, seeking approximately 37,000 more signatures to get to their 300,000. Judge Cassel, who recently wrote to President Obama asking that he give Angeleos clemency, stepped down from the bench primarily because of how disturbed he felt over the unfair sentence he was forced to impose (Horwitz). He wrote:
“I write you as the judge who sentenced Weldon Angelos to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term for non-violent drug offenses, it appears to me that Mr. Angelos meets all of the criteria for a commuted sentence” (Horwitz).
President Obama commuted the sentences of 95 drug offenders in December 2015. In total, he has granted clemency to 184 offenders (Horwitz). He is committed to giving clemency to those who were harshly sentenced due to the U. S. war on drugs.
Ferner, Matt. “The GOP Argument Against Criminal Justice Reform Just Got Dismantled.” Huffington Post. 17 February 2016. Web. 8 March 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bernard-kerik-justice-reform_us_56c4fab5e4b08ffac12789f7.
Foran, Clare. “A New Hurdle in the Push for Criminal-Justice Reform.” The Atlantic. 12 January 2016. Web. 8 March 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/criminal-justice-reform-obama/423789.
Galston, William, A. “Criminal justice reform: the facts about federal drug offenders.” The Brookings Institution. 13 February 2016. Web. 8 March 2016. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/fixgov/posts/2016/02/13-criminal-justice-reform-galston-mcelvein.
Haney, Matt. “Analysis: Listen to the people, schedule a vote on criminal justice reform.” The Atlantic. 4 March 2016. Web. 8 March 2016. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/opinion-listen-the-american-people-schedule-vote-criminal-justice-reforms.
Horwitz, Sari. “Former federal judge to President Obama: Free the man I sentenced to 55 years in prison.” Washington Post. 6 February 2016. Web. 8 March 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/02/09/former-federal-judge-to-president-obama-free-the-man-i-sentenced-to-55-years-in-prison.
Kim, Seung Min. “Cotton leads effort to sink sentencing overhaul.” Politico. 25 January 2016. Web. 8 March 2016. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/01/criminal-justice-tom-cotton-218121#ixzz3yT3yKPG9.
Lee, Michelle Ye Hee. “Sen. Tom Cotton’s claim that sentencing reform bill would release ‘thousands of violent felons.’” Washington Post. 8 February 2016. Web. 8 March 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/02/08/sen-tom-cottons-claim-that-sentencing-reform-bill-would-release-thousands-of-violent-felons.
“Weldon Angelos” FAMM. n.d. Web. 8 March 2016. http://famm.org/weldon-angelos/
“What is CompStat?” University of Maryland. n.d. Web. 8 March 2016. http://www.compstat.umd.edu/what_is_cs.php.