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Washington • Reforming criminal justice laws to curb excessive sentences isn't "going soft on crime" but rather a nod to the fact that locking up first-time criminals for decades and punishing low-level offenders isn't the best solution for fighting crime, former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman told Congress on Monday.
Tolman joined several other experts on criminal law before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss a bipartisan measure meant to cut down on stringent mandatory minimum sentences and give federal judges more leniency in dealing with non-violent drug dealers and users.
The bill also offers ways for prison inmates to reduce their sentences for good behavior and adds training programs to ease their transition when they are released.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is a co-sponsor of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, the subject of the hearing.
Tolman, a former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, argued for the bill, saying that such reforms have succeeded in several states and would cause meaningful and realistic improvements to the U.S. criminal justice system.
"Such an approach is not a signal of weakness or 'going soft on crime,'" Tolman said in prepared testimony submitted to the committee. "Instead, it is an acknowledgment that we can be smarter and accomplish the interests of the criminal justice system more efficiently and enlightened by those who have struggled with, and overcome, the same issues and concerns."
Tolman cited statistics showing that high-level drug traffickers made up just 11 percent of offenders sentenced in federal courts. Nearly 60 percent sentenced were street-level dealers or below, Tolman said, and those defined as drug couriers or mules made up some 28 percent.
"More and more individuals, on both sides of the political aisle, are recognizing that many of these low-level offenders are being given extremely long sentences in federal prisons – sentences that too often do not match the gravity of the crimes committed," Tolman said in written testimony.
Twelve senators have now signed on to the Senate version of the bill. Lee says that if the package is enacted, it would be more fair to offenders and more efficient "without doing anything to undermine public safety."
"In fact, I think we can do this in a way that enhances public safety," Lee said, adding in his prepared remarks that some mandatory sentencing guidelines are unjust, impose real costs – both human and financial – to the public and are "out of step with American tradition."
Concerns about the reform bill, though, were raised several times in Monday's hearing.
"The only real teeth out there are the mandatory minimums," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who cautioned that Congress needs to be "very careful" in any reform efforts. "Certainty in sentencing is important. Good reduction in crime can get away from us if we" don't have strong penalties.
Steven Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, said the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would reverse gains made in cutting down on violence that once "plagued" America.
"Further, it would seriously weaken the very tools that federal prosecutors, working with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, have used to keep our communities safe," Cook said in written testimony.
A large number of convicted prisoners will re-commit crimes, Cook added, and any changes should be carefully studied before spending resources on an "untested nationwide federal program and placing the public at risk. Our citizens deserve nothing less."
But Sally Quillan Yates, the Justice Department's deputy attorney general, said the legislation's goals match those of prosecutors who want fair and just sentences.
"The fundamental responsibility of all prosecutors is not simply to win convictions or send people to prison," she testified. "Our responsibility is to seek justice. And I believe that justice now requires that we recalibrate our approach to our sentencing laws."