Though he spared exactly zero words regarding cannabis, drug policy, or criminal justice reform in his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama and his administration have been increasingly more vocal on these issues as he settles into his second, and final, term in office.
Both the President and Attorney General Eric Holder in the Department of Justice have earned few friends and little trust in the cannabis community, but both wings of the Executive Branch have vowed to address the undeniable fact that when it comes to victimless, drug-related crimes, our criminal justice system is broken. This past Thursday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee took an historic step to begin the long overdue reform process.
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In a 13-5 vote, the committee passed S.1410, The Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). Not since the Nixon administration have federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws seen such an overhaul, but the bill is not the law of the land just yet.
If passed into law, the Smarter Sentencing Act would automatically cut mandatory minimum sentences in half on all federal drug offenses. In addition, the new law would require all federal law enforcement agencies to compile, and make publicly available, all federal laws and regulations that carry criminal penalties. The authors of the bill hope that by making this information more readily available, fewer people will unknowingly or unwillingly break a federal drug law and end up behind bars. The new bill would add sexual abuse, domestic violence, and terrorism to the list of offenses that will carry mandatory minimum sentences. And offering a glimmer of hope to 8,800 federal prisoners currently locked up over crack cocaine charges, the Smarter Sentencing Act would allow them to get another day in court, in accordance with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which aimed to eliminate the disparity (often racial) between sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine. Most of all, it will allow judges to more effectively use their discretion on a case-by-case basis.
In an era where Democrats and Republicans cannot seem to agree on the color of the sky, this proposed legislation enjoys strong bipartisan backing, with names like Rand Paul (R-KY), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) already signing on in support.
There are those, however, who do not support such reform, and do not agree with the rhetoric being offered from the White House and the Department of Justice. The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys released a letter last week, expressing their clear cut opposition to any criminal justice reform, as well as their boss’s support of it.
In the letter they state, “We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as ‘broken’ or in need of major reconstruction. Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving.”
As Bill Piper (awesome name) of the Drug Policy Alliance points out in his brilliant piece on Huffington Post, the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we house 25% of the world’s inmates. We’re #1! We’re #1!
Piper shows that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is already operating at 140% capacity, and gobbles up 1/3rd of the Justice Department’s budget. Most sickening of all, over half of the prisoners registered through the BOP are doing time for drug-related crimes.
In response to the letter of opposition by the Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Piper writes, “With the vote today it is clear that both liberal stalwarts and Tea Party favorites recognize that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers. Yet federal prosecutors are defending the current system with its enormous racial disparities, mass incarceration, and unjust penalties.” He concludes with, “Apparently they are still living in the Dark Ages…Their statement typifies the singular barrier prosecutors represent to reforming the deeply flawed criminal justice system.”
With mounting social, political, and moral pressure and support to introduce these reforms, it will be interesting to see how Obama and Holder act to reign in their rogue U.S. Attorneys. Decades of precedent are at stake for both sides.