Prepared Floor Statement of Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
The Smarter Sentencing Act
Tuesday, March 13, 2014
Mr. President, there are new reports that the Majority Leader is considering bringing the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act to the Senate floor for a vote.
I rise again today to express my strong opposition to this bill and argue against taking up the Senate’s time to consider it.
Mr. President, this country has experienced a tremendous drop in crime over the past 30 years. We have achieved hard-won gains in reducing victimization.
More effective police tactics played a significant role. Congress assisted with funds for law enforcement and mandatory sentencing guidelines to make dangerous offenders serve longer sentences.
But after the Supreme Court applied novel constitutional theory, those mandatory guidelines were made advisory only. Federal judges then used their discretion to sentence defendants more leniently than the guidelines had called for.
Today, the only tool Congress has to make sure that federal judges do not abuse their discretion in sentencing too leniently is mandatory minimum sentences.
This bill would cut a wide range of mandatory minimum sentences by half or more. Those sentences include people convicted of manufacture, sale, possession with intent to distribute, and importation of a wide range of drugs, including heroin, cocaine, PCP, LSD, ecstasy, and methamphetamine.
When supporters of this bill discuss how it increases discretion for judges and keeps current maximum sentences, what they really mean is that judges will gain discretion only to be more lenient. The bill does not increase discretion for judges to be more punitive.
When supporters of this bill say that the bill only applies to nonviolent offenders, don’t be misled into thinking it applies to people in federal prison for simple possession of marijuana. It doesn’t. The offenses covered in this bill are violent. Importing cocaine is violent. The whole operation turns on violence. Dealing heroin also involves violence or the threat of violence. And the offense for which the offender is sentenced may have been violent. The defendant’s co-defendant might have used a gun. And while the bill does not apply to a drug crime for which the defendant used violence, it does apply to criminals where the defendant has a history of committing violent crime.
Supporters have failed to recognize that it would apply to drug dealers with a history of violent crime.
Supporters of the bill also raise the argument of prison overcrowding. But prison populations in this country are decreasing and have been decreasing for several years. States have been able to reduce prison construction and sentencing as crime has fallen. As Charles Lane wrote in the Washington Post, one reason states could do this is the reduction in the fear of crime that has accompanied falling crime rates.
The rate of increase in federal prison populations has fallen a great deal. In recent years, the number of new federal prisoners receiving prison sentences has declined. New policies the Department has adopted with respect to clemency and its unwillingness to charge defendants for the crimes they have committed will only further reduce overcrowding and prison expenses.
It is also important to recognize that drug offenders are an increasingly small proportion of the new offenders who are being sentenced to federal prison as federal law enforcement shifts more resources away from drugs and toward immigration and weapons offenses.
And the reduction in prison populations is not really so much about cost saving as cost shifting from prison budgets to victim suffering.
What is happening as the number of state and federal prisoners has dropped?
In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report recorded an increase in the number of violent crimes for the first time in many years. It is only one year and the increase was less than one percent. But it represents a dramatic change in the trend, and it bears a vigilant watch, not support for a reckless, wholesale, and arbitrary reduction in mandatory minimum sentences.
The bill represents a particularly misguided effort in light of current conditions concerning drug use. We’re in the midst of a heroin epidemic right now. Deaths from heroin overdoses in Pennsylvania are way up. The governor of Vermont devoted the entirety of his State of the State address this year to the heroin problem.
Marijuana decriminalization is leading to the greater availability of marijuana at a lower price. That is causing Mexican growers who formerly produced marijuana to grow opium for heroin importation into this country instead.
The Obama Administration says it is concerned about the heroin epidemic, but it supports a bill that cuts penalties for heroin importation and dealing.
The Administration says it wants to fight sexual assaults on campus, and I think that they do. But they are also supporting this bill, which cuts in half the mandatory minimum sentence for dealing in ecstasy, the “date rape” drug.
The Administration’s support for this bill makes no sense.
And at least some Administration officials understand that.
As the director of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Michele Leonhart, testified before the Judiciary Committee, "Having been in law enforcement as an agent for 33 years, [and] a Baltimore City police officer before that, I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work for DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations. . . . We depend on those as a way to ensure that the right sentences are going to the . . . level of violator we are going after.”
Current mandatory minimum sentences play a vital role in reducing crime. They do more than keep serious offenders in jail so that they cannot prey upon innocent citizens. They also induce lower-level drug offenders to avoid receiving mandatory minimum sentences by implicating higher-ups.
As FBI Director Comey recently stated, “I know from my experience … that the mandatory minimums are an important tool in developing cooperators.”
Recently, a bipartisan group of former Justice Department officials wrote to Leaders Reid and McConnell. Their letter expressed strong opposition to cutting mandatory minimums for drug trafficking by half or more. They warned:
“We are deeply concerned about the impact of sentencing reductions of this magnitude on public safety.
“We believe the American people will be ill-served by the significant reduction of sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes that involve the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs like heroin, methamphetamines and PCP.
“We are aware of little public support for lowering the minimum required sentences for these extremely dangerous and sometimes lethal drugs.”
This is National Police Week. Officers from all over the country have traveled to Washington to make their concerns known. We salute them for the work that they do and the dangers that they face.
If we really respect them and want to support them, then we ought to listen to what they have to say.
The National Narcotics Officers’ Association has written, “As the men and women in law enforcement who confront considerable risk daily to stand between poison sellers and their victims, we cannot find a single good reason to weaken federal consequences for the worst offenders who are directly responsible for an egregious amount of personal despair, community decay, family destruction, and the expenditure of vast amounts of taxpayer dollars to clean up the messes they create.”
The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association has also come out against the bill.
They have stated, “It is with great concern that FLEOA views any action or attempt … that would alter or eliminate the current federal sentencing policy regarding mandatory minimum sentencing.
“The mandatory minimum sentencing standard currently in place is essential to public safety and that of our membership.”
Mr/Mm President, many of us will rightfully praise our law enforcement officers as they are in town for National Police Week. But what we really ought to do is listen to them. They are telling us that taking up this bill would be a slap in the face of all our brave police officers who protect us from harm every day. They deserve better than that. Citizens who are finally less likely to become crime victims deserve that. The respect that is due those on the front line against wrongdoers demands that the Senate neither take up nor pass the mislabeled so-called Smarter Sentencing Act.