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Federal sentencing reform will aid law enforcement

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The Senate is back in session amid recent warnings from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that federal sentencing reform would jeopardize public safety. They say the country cannot risk reform.

As a former attorney general under President George W. Bush who has overseen thousands of prosecutions, and a police chief with three decades of experience, we have dedicated our lives to the safety of this country. 

{mosads}We can firmly say that sentencing reform done right will not harm public safety. In fact, it will enhance it.

We were some of the original supporters of the 1990s “tough on crime” laws. After decades of enforcing them, we and our colleagues — police chiefs and U.S. attorneys — now recognize many provisions, like overly harsh sentencing, went too far.

Much has been learned in the last 25 years about who should be locked up and for how long. 

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recalibrates sentencing policy to meet the needs of the 21st century. Lowering mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crimes will reduce unnecessary incarceration. This will allow us to better direct law enforcement resources to arresting, prosecuting, and punishing the most serious and violent criminals.

That’s why we and 130 of our law enforcement colleagues wrote to congressional leadership urging them to pass the act. Those standing with us include two former U.S. attorneys general, two directors of the FBI, 21 sitting police chiefs and 68 former U.S. attorneys. 

Our message to Republican leadership is clear: Law enforcement asks you to pass this bill. Targeted and appropriate sentencing is a superior approach to controlling crime.

Since 1980, Congress has enacted more than 100 new federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. As a result, the federal inmate population grew more than 750 percent. Although we do not dispute that society was made safer by the incarceration of many of these inmates, it is beyond dispute that public safety did not require all of them to be incarcerated for as long as they were.

The opposition to this bill relies on incorrect facts. Opponents claim that if passed, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will allow thousands of violent offenders and high-level drug traffickers out of federal prison. The reality is that less than half of all federal inmates convicted for drug crimes have a history of violence. In fact, over a quarter of prisoners serving time for drug crimes have no prior criminal convictions. Only 14 percent of prisoners convicted of drug crimes qualify as managers, leaders or organizers of the drug trade. While even low-level dealers should and can be held accountable, incarcerating them for decades at a time is not the most effective means of interrupting the illicit drug trade and deterring future drug crimes.

Mandatory minimums at current levels are also an unwise use of taxpayer dollars. Federal prisons are 23 percent over capacity. They consume 25 percent of the Justice Department’s $26 billion budget. These dollars would be better put toward crime-fighting priorities such as investing in new technologies to improve policing strategies and ensuring our police and U.S. attorneys’ offices have the staffing and resources they need to arrest, prosecute and punish violent criminals.

Perhaps most important, locking up low-level offenders for long prison sentences doesn’t reduce crime. Research shows that longer sentences can often increase recidivism, especially for low-level offenders. And recent studies now show that increasing incarceration has diminishing returns on controlling crime.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act offers a better path forward. It would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for repeat nonviolent drug offenders. And it would allow judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimums for low-level offenders if — after hearing specific circumstances of the crime — they feel it is appropriate.

Contrary to what opponents have claimed, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not swing open the prison doors and release thousands of hardcore violent criminals onto the streets.

Every single prisoner eligible for early release will be carefully scrutinized by judges. And only if the judges feel it’s appropriate will they release them. This judicial check ensures the worst criminals will remain where they belong — in prison — while those who pose little threat can get off the taxpayers’ tab and begin productively contributing to society.

The bill would also expand the use of mandatory minimums for offenders with previous convictions for violent crimes, and it creates new mandatory minimums for terrorism-related crimes, giving federal law enforcement additional mechanisms to keep those most dangerous behind bars.

Now is the time for Congress to act. Reducing the population of our overcrowded prisons is one of the few goals on which those on the left and right agree. 

We want to make it clear where law enforcement stands: Not only is passing federal legislation to reform mandatory minimum sentences necessary to reduce incarceration, it will also help us keep crime at its historic low.

Mukasey served as attorney general of the United States under President George W. Bush, a federal district judge in the Southern District of New York and an assistant U.S. attorney. Serpas is the chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration and a former superintendent of the New Orleans and Nashville police departments.

Tags Jeff Sessions Ted Cruz Tom Cotton
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