Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA). That Act would mandate shorter sentences for certain drug offenders and cause the immediate release of many drug felons, including some who carried guns when they committed the drug offense.
If the Senate passes this legislation, it will do so mainly because of Chairman Grassley’s support.
But in March, Grassley gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor denouncing the very kind of reform he now has decided to push. Quoting the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, Grassley stated that “any change in the mandatory minimum sentencing standard does a disservice to the brave men and women who are asked to put their lives on the line to protect us from terrorists and criminals.” (Emphasis added)
Grassley also argued that there is no need to change the mandatory minimums because a “safety valve” prevents their application except in cases where they are warranted:
Defendants can qualify [for the safety valve] if they have no or a very light criminal history. That means that those who are convicted but aren’t violent do not serve mandatory minimum sentences. The average sentence for a federal drug courier offender is only 39 months. The offenders who qualify for the safety valve are drug couriers and drug dealers.
Mere possession of drugs, Grassley added, doesn’t trigger mandatory minimums either. Indeed, “almost no citizen is in federal prison for mere drug possession,” he said. The few who are serve an average sentence of 1.3 months.
Grassley’s speech in defense of the current sentencing system was about as impassioned as the Iowa Senator gets:
The supporters of the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act do not even attempt to contest my points in opposition. They do not say there is not a heroin epidemic. They cannot say that citizens are serving federal mandatory minimum sentences for possession. . . .
They are committed to the bill as a matter of ideology. The facts simply do not matter to them. They try change the subject. All they can do is resort to rhetoric. In fact, the supporters of that legislation are Orwellian in their rhetoric.
I mean that literally. George Orwell wrote a famous essay called “Politics and the English Language.” He said: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”
The arguments for the Smarter Sentencing Act are merely a weak attempt to defend the indefensible.
What I have called the leniency industrial complex refers to the people who are sentenced to drug mandatory minimum sentences as “nonviolent.” They use that term even though any truly nonviolent offenders would qualify for the safety valve. They gloss over the fact that even if an offender was not violent in a particular case, he may have committed a prior violent offense that would make him in fact violent. And, of course, many drug related crimes occur through force or the threat of force or are conducted by people in a criminal enterprise that relies on violence.
The bill’s supporters even refer to some drug offenders as “nonviolent” who are serving mandatory minimum sentences for carrying a firearm in the commission of their crime. Few Americans would call someone who carries a gun while committing a drug crime “nonviolent.”
And the leniency industrial complex wants people to think that people who are sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences are “low level offenders.” They neglect to mention that true low level offenders receive the safety valve and avoid mandatory minimum sentences and that many others avoid them by providing substantial assistance.
Many of the cases they cite involve repeat offenders. Repeat offenders are not low level.
Lenient sentences did not stop them from dealing dangerous drugs and another lenient sentence won’t stop their next drug deal.
When it comes to terms like “low level” and “non-violent,” again quoting Orwell, the bill’s supporters have their “own private definition, but allow the hearer to think [they] mean something quite different.”
Unfortunately, in yet another Orwelllian twist, Chairman Grassley now sponsors legislation predicated on the same indefensible propositions he denounced seven months ago.
What has happened since March that caused Grassley to flip? The biggest changed circumstance is a soaring crime rate. This development hardly militates in favor of reduced sentences and the release of gun-toting criminals.
Some speculate that Grassley and other Republicans have been influenced by the Koch Brothers who are part of what Grassley called “the leniency industrial complex.” Some say that certain evangelicals have influenced Grassley.
Whatever the cause, the effect of passing his legislation will be more crime, more violence, and more drug dealing. As I pointed out last night, the recidivism rate for drug offenders released from prison is around 75 percent. And that’s just the ones who get caught.
Those interested in finding out why Grassley flipped can call his office. The number is (202) 224-3744.
At this point, Senate Majority Leader McConnell probably holds the key to stopping the SCRA. His office number is (202) 224-2541.