Cutting federal prison terms would endanger communities and reward criminals

Bills labeled “criminal justice reform” have circulated in Congress for the past three years, but while they are well-meaning, they would do far more harm than good. This includes a measure sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, titled the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

The Grassley legislation would make our communities less safe by returning still more convicted criminals from federal prisons to the streets sooner.

In addition, the Grassley bill would tie up hundreds of federal prosecutors, who would be forced to deal with sentencing reduction motions filed by prisoners seeking early release. This means the prosecutors would have less time to handle new cases involving dangerous criminals.

The Grassley bill would reduce federal prison sentences not only for “non-violent, low-level drug offenders” but serious drug traffickers, members of violent drug cartels and people convicted of firearms crimes.

In addition, Grassley’s bill ignores the reality that strong federal sentencing guidelines have another valuable byproduct – squeezing cooperation from reticent criminals so they will testify against other criminals, while incentivizing them to plead guilty to lesser offenses to get shorter prison terms.

Getting criminals to confess and reveal information about others provides government investigators with a wealth of intelligence they can use to solve more crimes.

Weakening sentencing guidelines to shorten prison terms – as the Grassley bill does – only serves to undercut cooperation by defendants and would make our communities more dangerous.

Because of its many serious shortcomings, 40 former federal law enforcement senior executives signed a letter to Senate leadership rejecting an earlier version of Sen. Grassley’s bill in 2015. The signatories included former U.S. Attorneys General John Ashcroft and William Barr, former U.S. Attorney and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former White House Directors of National Drug Control Policy William Bennett and John Walters, former Administrators of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Robert Bonner, and 11 former high-ranking FBI officials (myself included).

At the time, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was among the senators who understood the risk and were vocal about opposing the Grassley bill. Now, three years later, Attorney General Sessions again stands in opposition to Grassley’s successor bill. He was right then and he’s right now.

The Grassley bill just deals with federal prisoners, not those in local jails or state prisons. The federal corrections system is far different than those of the states, and their respective populations help to define some key differences.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons holds nearly184,000 prisoners. A total of 46.2 percent of them are serving time for serious drug-related offenses; another 17.5 percent have been convicted of weapons, explosive and arson crimes; and 9.4 percent are imprisoned for sex offenses.

While much has been made of the harshness of federal minimum mandatory sentences and their impact on reform and on families, Bureau of Prisons records show that half of federal prisoners are serving sentences of 10 years or less. Only about 16 percent are serving sentences of 20 years or more.

By contrast, according to a Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics review, at the end of 2016 there were 1.3 million inmates in state prisons, with just over half held for violent crimes and only a quarter for state and local drug crimes.

Within the federal system, agents and prosecutors work to build enterprise investigations that include focusing on disrupting or dismantling big pieces of entire criminal organizations. Because drug trafficking organizations involve participants at multiple levels, the feds seek to unravel and prove the various roles and schemes engaged in by those charged.

History has shown these often sprawling interstate and international organizations use enforcers and the threatened and actual use of violence to collect debts and illegal payments, ensure loyalty, control territory and mete out discipline.

Much of this violence is at the point of a gun – weapons that American inner cities are awash with. This violence feeds a destructive downward spiral of attack and retaliatory response that takes the lives of criminal enterprise participants and their rivals.

Too often, criminal enterprise-driven gun violence claims the lives of uninvolved innocents – children cut down in the crossfire or even targeted because of a parent’s felonious involvement, along with indiscriminate victims who were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Local, state, tribal and federal law enforcers have all contributed mightily to counter violent criminal and drug trafficking enterprises. But despite this, opioid abuse, overdoses and deaths spiked in 2016 and 2017.

Communities large and small suffered the impact while law enforcement seized synthesized fentanyl in quantities that could kill the population of entire cities. Whether the enterprise is a Mexican drug cartel or one bred in the U.S., the result is the same – growing numbers of the addicted and a national crisis in overdoses and deaths have left cash-strapped communities with few good options.

Moreover, after sliding for two decades, America’s violent crime and homicide rates turned upward in 2015 and again in 2016. The reversal wasn’t minor – it was real and worrisome, with violent crime climbing 7 percent and homicides jumping by 20 percent. Those numbers represent real victims.

Grassley’s legislation is both poorly timed and ill-advised. It’s little more than a rehashed “jailbreak” bill that should be permanently scrapped, taking with it the mistaken notion that federal prisons remain filled with “low level, non-violent” drug offenders.

The good senator from Iowa would do better for all Americans by drafting legislation that empowers validated methodologies shown to steer the willing away from prison while building the opportunity, skill sets and individual tools needed to make released convicts more “crime resistant.”