On April 12, the House Crime Subcommittee began reviewing a provision slipped into House Bill 1528 that bears the lengthy title of Defending Americas Most Vulnerable: Safe Access to Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act of 2005.
The bill was earlier introduced in the House, but is not out of committee as yet. The provision in question is included in section 12 of the bill, which is headed Sentencing Protections.
On its face, the bill seems like a good and needed piece of legislation. It is supposed to be aimed at such things as protecting children from drug traffickers, drug trafficking in the presence of children, protecting those in drug treatment, conforming sentencing guidelines to conspiracy law, assuring progressive sentencing enhancements for people possessing or using firearms, and mandatory detention of people convicted of serious drug offenses and crimes of violence.
All of that appears well and good. Then we get to the nitty gritty of the sentencing guidelines. This bill eliminates the requirement that the courts consider the need for the sentence imposed …to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner.
The legislation goes on to prohibit judges from handing out less than the harshest penalty provided by the sentencing guidelines. The government can move to waive that restriction.
This bill also spells out new procedural requirements for the courts if they intend to issue a more lenient sentence in a given case. The court must furnish 20 days advance notice, giving a detailed rationale for the sentence. Judges must allow briefs and conduct evidentiary hearings, but testimony or information about defendants who benefited from softer sentences is not admissible. Lower sentences must be supported by clear and convincing evidence, and the court must ready a detailed statement of reasons to justify the lighter sentence.
Courts also would be barred from delegating certain reporting requirements to prosecutors under terms of the Prosecutorial Remedies and Tools Against the Exploitation of Children Today Act of 2003.
This all translates to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It means more people will spend more time in prison no matter what mitigating circumstances may exist, such as the defendants role in the offense, addiction, rehabilitation attempts and so on. This at a time when the U.S. has more people in prison than any other country.
This bill creates sentencing guidelines that are actually a series of rigid, mandatory minimum sentences. Further, it creates an entire new series of nonviolent drug crimes that carry long prison terms.
Drug policy reform groups say if this bill passes, there will be almost no judicial discretion in sentencing allowed. The average federal prison sentence for a first-time drug offense exceeds the average sentence for sexual abuse, manslaughter, assault, or burglary.
The measure is opposed by a large number of church bodies, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Council of Churches, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, National Baptist Convention (USA), and many others.
Few issues attract such broad support among religious groups. Imprisoning low-level, non-violent offenders longer than violent criminals makes little sense and will only lead to worsening of the problem.
One instance of the warped approach involved is a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for parents who see or learn about drug trafficking activity, targeting or near their children and fail to tell law enforcement authorities within 24 hours. Are you ready to turn in your kid or grandchild for smoking a joint where you could see him or her? (mandatorymadness.org)
Opponents of this bill urge you take a minute to write your Congressman and tell him of your opposition. Here is the address:
Rep. Donald Manzullo
Washington, D.C. 20515-1316
Rep. Donald Manzullo
415 S. Mulford Rd.
Rockford, IL 61108
From the May 11-17, 2005, issue