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Sentencing Reform Stalls While President Continues to Commute Sentences

Posted by Yancey Ellis | Apr 22, 2016 | 0 Comments

Over the past few months, promising sentencing reform has made slow progress. Despite sentencing reform bills being proposed in both the House and the Senate, Congress has yet to pass either bill. As families, legislators, and even law enforcement push for reform on the federal level, prisoners convicted of minor drug crimes continue to wait for relief.

In the meantime, President Obama is using his executive authority to commute the sentences of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Last month, 61 prisoners had their sentences commuted, all of whom would have had shorter prison terms if they were sentenced under the current standards. This brings the total number of commuted sentences to 248 under Obama, more than the previous six presidents combined.

“Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals,” said White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, “but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just.”

The most recent group of individuals who have found relief through a commuted sentence is a tiny fraction of the thousands of low-level offenders who remain behind bars. For widespread reform to take place, Congress needs to pass some version of the reform legislation put forth by the House or Senate.

Advocates for sentencing reform continue to press Congress on the issue. One such group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), produced a documentary which highlights the harsh penalties that come with mandatory minimum sentences. Mandy Martinson is one of the subjects of the new documentary, a drug addict who was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.

Martinson had become addicted to meth. Shortly after her drug dealing boyfriend moved into her house, police raided the place, finding a quantity of drugs and a firearm. After the sobering experience, Martinson had completed a treatment program, was off drugs, and started work as a dental hygienist. However, even though she'd gotten her life back on track, the judge sentenced the young woman to 15 years in jail.

According to FAMM founder, Julie Stewart, putting a human face to the issue helps lawmakers understand the impact of their decisions. “It's very easy to sit in the hallowed halls of congress and shout out: ‘Four years! Five years! Six years! Ten years!” for some quantity of drugs and feel good about it — and have actually no idea how it's going to impact real people.”

In the meantime, states are continuing to see the wisdom of sentencing reform. In Maryland, the general assembly approved sentencing reforms which would eliminate mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, and lower the age for geriatric parole. The bill passed with broad support from both parties, and is seen as a way to reduce the prison population, and confront harsh sentencing rules.

Similarly, Nevada has put forward an assembly bill aimed at giving juvenile offenders a second chance at freedom. Assembly Bill 267 would require children sentenced to adult prison have their cases reviewed no later than 20 years after they begin their sentence. The bill would also end life sentences for nonviolent drug felonies, give judges more discretion in sentencing, and reduce solitary confinement for juveniles.

As we near the November elections Congress may once again take up the issue of sentencing reform, and bring the draft legislation up for a vote. Until then, state lawmakers and the president may be the only ones making changes to address the country's mandatory minimum sentencing problems.

About the Author

Yancey Ellis

Yancey is a partner at Harris Carmichael & Ellis, PLLC. He is critical to our firm-wide mission of service to the indigent, upholding the Constitution, and guiding our clients through the criminal justice system. As a Marine Corps JAG reservist, Yancey also assists military service members and veterans with their special legal needs.           

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