Congress Should Reassess Sentencing Overhaul

Proponents' claims are false and misleading

A cell at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
A cell at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Posted May 18, 2016 at 5:00am

We have spent more than 100 years combined fighting crime and protecting our communities. It is our job to enforce the law, and too often we find ourselves consoling victims and loved ones.

We are intimately familiar with our nation’s state and federal prison systems. It is extremely important that proponents of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the general public understand the differences between the two, because inmates incarcerated in state prison are very different from those incarcerated in federal prison.  

Supporters are telling the public the bill in Washington only affects first time, low-level offenders and will save the country money. These claims are false and misleading.  

Indeed, federal and state prisons exist independent of each other for this very reason. First time, low-level and non-violent drug offenders, to the extent they are even incarcerated, are housed in the state prison system. Serious, high-level drug traffickers with violent criminal histories are incarcerated in federal prisons.  

In fact, over 99 percent of all drug offenders in federal prison are there for drug trafficking. To even trigger the 10-year federal mandatory minimum for drug trafficking, an offender must possess 11 pounds of cocaine, one ton of marijuana (or 1,000 marijuana plants), or 2.2 pounds of heroin – which is enough heroin for 10,000 individual doses.  

None of these offenses fit the description of a so-called low-level, non-violent offender that SRCA supporters claim to want to help. In fact, as of March 2016, there are only 24 U.S. citizens serving federal sentences for “simple possession,” and many, if not all, likely involved more serious charges that were pled down.  

States like Texas, Georgia and Utah have made changes to their state’s sentencing structures and implemented state prison divestment campaigns in an attempt to rehabilitate first time, low-level and non-violent offenders.  

The truth is the results to date have been mixed. However, if changes are to be made, they should be at the state level. If Congress were to simply overlay the same type of changes on to the federal system, the results would be disastrous.    

For starters, the SRCA’s retroactivity provisions create a dangerous loophole for the early release of thousands of currently incarcerated violent felons. Under the bill, an offense is classified as a “serious violent felony” only if the crime committed is included in an enumerated list of offenses laid out in federal law Title 18 of the United States Code and the offender has been in prison for more than 12 months, or any other offense punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 10 years or more that involves the use or substantial risk of the use of physical force against someone else.  

That means, if an inmate’s prior convictions for a violent offense do not specifically fit into this legal definition, he or she will still be eligible for early release.  

The SRCA also would drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentences for all drug traffickers, including those who have trafficked in heroin and those who have smuggled drugs onto our shores by boat or submarine. The offender must simply convince a judge that they were only a bit player in the larger conspiracy. Some have dubbed this the “Scarface” provision, and it is as dangerous as that moniker suggests. These criminals have never been eligible for such leniency and are rarely if ever U.S. citizens.    

We strongly urge members of Congress to reassess their misguided approach to criminal justice reform. According to the Bureau of Prisons, the federal prison population has gone down by over 20,000 over the past two years and will go down by another 10,000 in the next year. Admissions to federal prison have fallen every year since 2011. Reducing the federal prison population even further, irrespective of the kinds of criminals being made eligible for early release, will only lead to more crime, more victims and more tragedy at a time when we are already facing an increase in violent crime and an historic heroin epidemic.  

This is not what anyone wants to see happen, especially not in the law enforcement community or among those who have been victims of violent crime. If we are going to make responsible changes to our criminal justice system, let’s work together to get it right.  

Sowell is president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas and sheriff of Grimes County, Texas; Eavenson is sheriff of Rockwell County, Texas, and a member of the National Sheriffs’ Association executive committee; Westbrook is executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.

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