Q&A: Federal Sentencing Reforms
with U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
Q: Which reforms is the Senate Judiciary Committee considering to the criminal justice system?
A: A generation or so ago, homicides and other crimes of violence were linked to a rise in illegal drug trafficking. Policymakers across all levels of government zeroed on efforts to make the nation’s streets safer and public squares more secure for the citizenry. Local efforts focused on policing and enforcement. At the federal level, Congress passed laws requiring mandatory sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences, and increased funding for the federal prison system. Minimum sentencing laws help bring certainty to victims and stability in the criminal justice system. Keep in mind also that 97 percent of all federal prosecutions lead to plea bargains. Plea bargains spare court resources, benefit victims and lead to sentences that reflect the seriousness of the crime. Last year the U.S. Attorney General announced the Department of Justice would dial back federal prosecutions for certain mandatory minimum sentences involving nonviolent drug offenses. The announcement opens debate about whether the administration is faithfully executing the laws passed by Congress. Notwithstanding the underlying constitutional issues that call into question the Attorney General’s execution of the law, the announcement invites a serious discussion about the direction of the U.S. criminal justice system in the 21st century. The U.S. spends $80 billion a year on our prison system and still confronts issues with overcrowding and recidivism. It would be prudent to consider home confinement for chronically ill prisoners or those assessed as low risk to commit new crimes. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported violent crime rose from 22.6 to 26.1 per 1000 people in 2012. Property crime jumped ten percent. As policymakers weigh reforms to address overcrowding, reduce mandatory minimum sentences and lessen the burden on the taxpaying public, policymakers also must consider the risks to public safety and personal property. Taxpayers who pay for the criminal justice system and the innocent victims of violent crime and their families deserve nothing less. The scales of justice must reflect the rights and protections of the victim as well as those of the accused in a society governed by the rule of law.
Q: Do you support changes to mandatory minimum sentences?
A: As the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have served on the panel which has oversight authority and legislative jurisdiction of the nation’s federal judiciary and criminal justice system since I was first elected to the U.S. Senate. I’m open to adjusting some mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent, lower-level crimes, as long as others are raised where needed, notably for the prosecution and conviction of sexual assault cases. A balanced mix of sentencing reforms offers an opportunity to root out weaknesses in the system as we work to strengthen law and justice. Specifically, I advanced amendments in committee this year that would improve justice for victims of sexual violence. My amendments would establish a five-year mandatory minimum sentencing standard for crimes of aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse and sexual abuse of a minor or ward; set a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for murders caused in the commission of certain sex offenses; and create a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for a conviction of interstate domestic violence in which death occurs. As it stands today, accused sexual offenders facing prosecution don’t have an incentive to enter a plea agreement. Perversely, it stands in their interest to roll the dice, go to trial and hope for probation or a light sentence. There are 32 categories of federal offenses, and sexual abuse cases rank 30th in the percentage of those in which the defendant pleads guilty. When critics of the criminal justice system call for judicial discretion that’s subterfuge for leniency. Times have changed since I cast my first vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the passage of time doesn’t change “We the People’s” proper expectation that justice be served in a nation founded upon justice for all.