Former federal law enforcement officials to Congress: Get big government out of the courtroom

With members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, under the watchful eye of Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), working on long overdue sentencing reforms, a group of 130 former federal prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials sent a letter urging action on the Smarter Sentencing Act.

The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 502/H.R. 920) would not eliminate any mandatory minimum sentences, but it would reduce them for low-level, nonviolent offenders by half. The bill would also expand the "safety valve" exception to these sentences for eligible offenders. This would give a judge discretion to consider an offender’s circumstances before handing down a punishment, rather than taking sentencing orders from big government in Washington.

In the letter to Grassley, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.), the 130 former federal prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials explain the need to get big government out of the courtroom, citing the rising costs of incarceration and ineffectiveness of current federal sentencing laws.

"Nationwide, law enforcement has made significant progress in curbing violent crime in our communities. At the federal level, we trust Congress to address the parts of our sentencing policies that are simply not working. Presently, mandatory minimum drug sentences unnecessarily apply to a broad sweep of lower level offenders," the letter states. "These include low-level, nonviolent people whose involvement in the offense is driven by addiction, mental illness, or both."

"Drug offenders are the largest group of federal offenders sentenced each year, now comprising nearly half of the federal prison population. Moreover, individuals most likely to receive a mandatory minimum sentence were street-level dealers, not serious and major drug dealers, kingpins, and importers," the letter explains. "Indeed, of the 22,000 federal drug offenders last year, only seven percent had a leadership role in the crime and 84 percent did not possess or use guns or weapons. The U.S. Sentencing Commission and other experts have found little deterrent value in sentencing low-level offenders to lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms."

Among the most notable signers are former FBI Director William Sessions and former Congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who, prior to serving in the House of Representatives, was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. Both were appointed to their respective former posts by President Ronald Reagan. Another signer, Judge William Bassler, was appointed to the New Jersey Superior Court in 1988 by Gov. Thomas Kean (R-N.J.) and to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

The letter, which was organized by the Constitution Project, notes that the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget has grown significantly and that, without reform to the nation’s sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders, poses a risk to other areas of law enforcement by swallowing up funding. The Smarter Sentencing Act, the 130 signers say, "reflects our concerns and embodies measured, bipartisan reforms."

In February, FreedomWorks released a letter of support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which is sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Senate and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) in the House. An iteration of the bill introduced in the previous Congress would have saved $3 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Justice Department estimated savings of approximately $24 billion over two decades.

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