The tragic reality of sentencing reform

Steve Cook is president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys. He has been a key figure in the fight against softer sentencing for federal drug felons and the early release of such felons. Writing in LifeZette, Steve explains why the sentencing reform legislation being pushed in Congress would have tragic consequences for innocent Americans. He writes:

Not all crimes are preventable — but some are. The serious crimes that have been committed recently by lawfully convicted felons who were prematurely released from prison as a result of so-called sentencing reforms, when these felons otherwise would have still been in prison, clearly could have been prevented. The misleading rhetoric of sentencing reform, filled with vague references to supposedly “low-level” and “non-violent” offenders, cannot conceal the crimes that never should have been permitted to occur.

Steve highlights three examples. The first is the killing Nykea Aldridge which we wrote about here:

The recent death in Chicago of Nykea Aldridge, the cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade, while Aldridge was pushing a baby in a stroller, is a prominent example of early release gone bad. The suspects charged with Aldridge’s killing, Darwin and Derren Sorrells, are convicted felons who, according to local media accounts, were sentenced to six-year prison sentences just a few years ago. Instead of serving their sentences, they were released early to parole and were back on the street in 2016.

The Sorrells case is a good example of how much sentencing reform has already decayed truth-in-sentencing principles throughout the country. If some members of Congress have their way, more casualties from early releases are likely to occur. The early release of thousands of federal prisoners for past crimes and the reduction of future sentences for future crimes lie at the core of sentencing reform legislation pending in Congress.

Next, he turns to the case of Wendell Callahan:

Wendell Callahan is yet another example of sentencing reform gone bad. Callahan was released early from imprisonment in 2014 following federal convictions for crack cocaine trafficking and for possession of a firearm after a prior felony conviction. He was released early pursuant to prior federal sentencing reform that reduced the sentences for trafficking crack cocaine.

According to Callahan’s defense attorney, “his early release did not present a danger to the safety of the public.” The defense attorney’s statement is remarkable in light of Callahan’s prior criminal history that, according to pleadings and news reports, included a conviction for felonious assault with a specification that he discharged a firearm aimed at a house or school and a report by an ex-girlfriend that he beat and choked her so violently that she believed she was going to die.

The defense attorney’s statement is even more remarkable in light of what Callahan is charged with doing after his early release, when he otherwise would have still been in federal prison serving a lawful sentence. He was arrested and charged with the brutal murders of the same ex-girlfriend and her two young daughters in Columbus, Ohio. Callahan currently faces multiple aggravated murder charges as a result of their deaths.

The final case involves Edward Dorsey:

Dorsey is a thrice-convicted Illinois drug trafficker whose high-profile case made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 2012. Prior to reaching the Supreme Court, career federal prosecutors, relying on long-standing precedent, had successfully argued against the reduction of Dorsey’s sentence for recidivist crack cocaine trafficking.

By the time the case reached SCOTUS, however, former Attorney General Eric Holder had reversed the Department of Justice position and sided with Dorsey. Perhaps not surprisingly — with both of the parties to the litigation on the same side — the Supreme Court gave Dorsey the benefit of a federal sentence reduction law that did not even exist when he was convicted in federal court for recidivist drug trafficking.

The sentence reduction resulted in Dorsey’s early release from prison in 2012. Less than two years after his early release, when he otherwise would still have been in federal prison, Dorsey was once again arrested for trafficking crack cocaine. He was thereafter convicted once again in federal court of three counts of crack cocaine distribution.

Dorsey is typical of drug offenders. Their recidivism rate exceeds 70 percent.

Steve concludes:

The pursuit of sentencing reform over the last few years has coincided with a dramatic increase in violent crime rates in locations throughout the country — and an explosion in drug overdose deaths caused by drug dealers pushing more and more potent poison into our communities. Under such circumstances, the fact that both Republican and Democratic members of Congress are pushing for even more drastic sentence reductions for thousands of drug traffickers — including heroin traffickers — is outrageous.

The Sorrells, Callahan, Dorsey, and many others like them are the tragic reality of sentencing reform. If some in Congress have their way, our families and our communities will continue to be its casualties.