The Road to Sentencing Reform
Shauna Barry-Scott was sentenced to 240 months of imprisonment with intent to distribute cocaine and 10 years supervised release. Mark Anthony Jones was sentenced to life imprisonment due to distribution of cocaine. Both of these inmates were a part of the 46 commuted sentences that Barack Obama allowed as a result of the upcoming changes in mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses in early 2015. Over the past year there have been numerous pieces of legislation drafted to address mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the United States. It is a well-known fact that the United States is responsible for locking up more of it’s citizens, specifically African-American and Hispanic men, than any other country in the world. Bi-partisan collaboration over criminal justice reform is increasing in frequency from the Senate floor to the House of Representatives both federally and at a state level. Earlier this month the Senate revealed a proposed bill that would reduce the length of the current mandatory minimums. The proposed bill would not only reduce the length of the mandatory minimums, but apply them to serious drug felonies and crimes. The legislation is controversial due to its addition of mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession and domestic violence crimes when there were no prior minimums.
Proposed changes to sentences that practitioners should be aware of include; 1) mandatory minimums for prior drug felons are reduced, (the three-strike penalty which sentenced defendants on their third drug-related felony to life in prison now reduces from life in prison to 25 years), 2) the safety valve is broadened and a second one is created for certain drug offenders, 3) reduces the mandatory minimum for firearm offenses and expands application for similar state convictions, 4) the maximum for unlawful possession of a firearm is raised along with a reduction in the minimum for armed career criminals, 5) there is a retroactive application of the fair sentencing act, 6) new minimum for interstate domestic violence, 7) new minimum for export control offenses and 8) mandated report and inventory of all federal criminal offenses.
The proposed changes can sometimes be applied retroactively to reduce a defendant’s sentence after a court considers the sentencing factors form the original case as well as holistic observations of the prisoner’s time served, such as prison misconduct or the danger to the community of releasing this individual into society. For those prisoners who fall under Section 102, the changes available to the current safety valve, there is not retroactive relief. These include offenders who have prior 3-point felony convictions or prior 2 point violent or drug trafficking offenses. Practitioners interested in whether their defendants are eligible for relief under these provisions should refer to the proposed section for each and whether their defendant meets the criteria. Those already covered by the safety valve in place typically will not be able to receive retroactive relief. Though this is just proposed legislation the Senate committee has a lot of support from within the Senate and also across the hall to the House of Representatives who attempted to introduce a similar bill last year.
On November 1st of this year there will be new sentencing guidelines that will result in the release of 6,000 federal prisoners, the largest one-time release in U.S history. This release is a chance to relieve overcrowded prisons of drug offenders given harsh sentences as a result of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s actions. The Commission believes that these guidelines will result in further releases over the year, but it is up to the judges if they wish to abide by the guidelines when considering sentences. Inmates who would like to be considered under these guidelines must petition the judge who will then make the final decision. Released inmates are often sent to halfway houses before they can re-enter their communities, so practitioners interested in these options for their defendants should inform defendants of the expectations for community re-entry.
Inmates like Shauna and Mark Anthony are able to finally pursue a life with their families and loved ones due to the changes in mandatory minimum drug sentencing. Though there is still a lot of room for growth and improvements on mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses and a variety of other institutionalized crimes, there is a general understanding within the criminal justice community that change is coming and will be supported across party lines for the justice of those like Shauna and Mark who deserve it most.