In a striking statement that’s a departure from the views of other major civil rights groups, National Urban League President Marc Morial expressed concerns with the two leading sentencing reform bills in Congress: S. 2123 and H.R. 3137. The Senate bill, S. 2123, was authored primarily by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and H.R. 3137 is virtually a duplicate of S. 2123 after House Judiciary Committee Chairman decided to copy the sentencing portion of the Grassley bill which adds a heroin trafficking penalty.
H.R. 3713, the Sentencing Act (also known as Goodlatte-Conyers) was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee today. While both the NAACP, the ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights have noted problems with the legislation, they’ve endorsed it.
“As currently drafted, this bill will only exacerbate the current racial disparities in our criminal justice system and cannot be characterized as sentencing reform,” wrote President Morial in a letter dated November 17, and address to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and ranking Democrat John Conyers.
“Unless and until the House Judiciary Committee is able to demonstrate the statistics demonstrating that these reforms will help communities of color more than adversely impacting them, the National Urban League must reserve its support until this is addressed as the bill moves forward through the legislative process. As currently drafted, this bill will only exacerbate the current racial disparities in our criminal justice system and cannot be characterized as sentencing reform,” wrote National Urban League President Marc Morial in a bold rebuke of a much heralded bipartisan moment in justice reform.
“While it is commendable that this bill lowers the length of some mandatory minimum penalties, we are extremely concerned by the fact that this bill expands the eligibility of the very mandatory minimums it seeks to reduce, which unnecessarily expands the universe of individuals who would be subject to these harsh penalties,” the Urban League’s letter continued.
The Senate justice bill, S.2123 (the Grassley bill), adds two new mandatory minimums, one for terrorism and another for domestic violence. Democrats who support Grassley’s bill argue that the two new mandatories will impact few defendants. The House bill, H.R. 3137 (Goodlatte-Conyers) adds a new penalty for trafficking heroin mixed of disguised as fentanyl. There is no hard data on how many defendants may be involved in the new penalties.
A new analysis of H.R. 3137 released on November 18 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission omitted the heroin fentanyl penalty from its analysis. The two new mandatory minimums in Senate bill S. 2123 by Judge Saris, was omitted from the analysis of that bill.
“The National Urban League has consistently opposed existing mandatory minimums due to their discriminatory application and disproportionate impact and reiterates that opposition now. We oppose the bill’s inclusion of state prior convictions that will make people eligible for a 851 and 924(c) mandatory minimum. We oppose the bill’s increase in the statutory maximum for firearms and ammunitions felonies that are discriminatorily charged against offenders of color,”
A statement by the ranking Democrat of the House Crime subcommittee, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), H.R. 3713, states “I urgently encourage both the Senate and the House to pass these bills. It will not completely change the system overnight, but it will lock in some basic principles that we understand are going to make us a fairer and safer society over the long term. I am very proud of the work that those legislators are doing.”
Jackson Lee is likely referring to what many agree are positive reforms: Making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive, changing the third strike from life to 25 years and retroactive and “recalibrate prison sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders, grant federal judges greater discretion at sentencing for low-level drug crimes, and curb recidivism by helping formerly incarcerated people successfully re-enter society,” as described by Rep. Jackson Lee, who represents Houston.
Morial is joined by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and Federal Defenders of New York in his skepticism. On Tuesday afternoon, FAMM released an analysis of the House sentencing bill that was not flattering.
“FAMM does not seek to derail these bills – or any bills – that move in the right direction. We simply believe the time is right for more meaningful reform, reform that improves public safety, saves taxpayers money, and restores the bedrock principle that individuals should be punished as individuals.
“We have concluded that these proposals fail to match the overwhelming support for reform that can be found across the political spectrum,” wrote FAMM President Julie Stewart in an article entitled, Sentencing Reforms in the 114th Congress: They Simply Aren’t Good Enough.
Questions of cost savings, which are directly connected to how many fewer inmates will be in the federal system, have been hard to find. The federal prison population, which is now 206,000, did decrease in 2015 for the first time in 32 years. From 1943 to 1980, the federal prison population was about 24,000. It exploded at the start of the war on drugs in the 1970s.
President Obama is expected to sign any sentencing reform bill that passes the House and Senate. The White House is looking for a legacy piece as the President enters his final year in office.