Carly Fiorina on sentencing reform

After Carly Fiorina’s address at the Iowa state fairgrounds last Saturday, I joined the crowd that wanted to meet her. My impression of how she interacted with the crowd is recorded here.

When it was my turn to meet the candidate, I thanked her for running such a good campaign and asked if she would take a question. Fiorina readily agreed, and I asked her about criminal sentencing reform.

Here is what happened next:

The question

I asked Fiorina what her position is on lowering the mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug felonies. I made no reference to the proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, figuring that the candidate was unlikely to know what this legislation provides (there is no reason why, at this stage, she should know).

The answer

Fiorina responded, without hesitation, “I’m for it.” She explained that she favors criminal justice reform and that she lost a daughter to drug addiction. Fiorina added that “you can’t just put everyone in jail.”

I responded that very few federal drug offenders are guilty of mere possession and fewer still are covered by mandatory minimums. Fiorina replied that she may have misunderstood my question.

By this point, we both noticed that I was starting to monopolize the candidate’s time, so we ended what was a cordial exchange of views.

My analysis

In stating that she may have misunderstood my question, I think Fiorina meant that she may misunderstand the scope of federal mandatory minimums for drug offenders. She’s not the only one. It’s a common myth that the feds are locking up hordes of low level drug users for mere possession, and throwing away the key.

As Heather Mac Donald has demonstrated, this is not at all the case. Less than 1 percent of sentenced drug offenders in federal court in 2014 were convicted for simple drug possession, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and most of those convictions were plea-bargained down from trafficking charges.

Moreover, as Mac Donald also points out, the federal minimums are also not lightly levied. A ten-year sentence for heroin trafficking, for example, requires possession of a kilogram of heroin, enough for 10,000 individual doses, with a typical street value of at least $70,000. And traffickers without a serious criminal history can avoid application of a mandatory sentence by cooperating with investigators.

Even if we look beyond the federal system and the drug laws specifically, we are not “warehousing” most convicted offenders in jail. On the contrary, the criminal-justice system tries to divert as many people as possible from long-term confinement. According to Iowa State University sociologist Matt DeLiss, “most cases are triaged with deferred judgments, deferred sentences, probation, workender jail sentences, [and] weekender jail sentences.”

Final impressions

My impression is that Fiorina hasn’t studied the issue of federal mandatory minimums for drug felons. I don’t hold this against her. The Senate legislation to lower some of these minimums hasn’t even made it to the floor yet. A candidate for president cannot, at this stage of the campaign, be expected to have studied every significant issue that is percolating up.

Faced with a question about an issue he or she hasn’t studied, the candidate has two alternatives: (1) decline to answer or (2) rely on instinct. Fiorina chose the second, as I imagine most candidates do.

Fiorina’s instinct, derived from a personal family tragedy, is to favor leniency in many drug cases. It’s not a bad instinct.

However, if sentencing reform legislation reaches the floor of the Senate and the House, it will be incumbent on Fiorina, if she is still a candidate, to study the issue and reach an opinion based on more than instinct.

During our brief exchange, Fiorina, rather than digging in her heels, showed a willingness to reconsider her answer to the extent the facts might warrant. For this, I think, she deserves credit.