Last night, I read through most of the report entitled, Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Administration and Congress. The goal of the report is to provide “analysis of the problems plaguing our state and federal criminal justice systems and a series of recommendations to address these failures.” For the most part, I think the report accomplishes that goal.
First, let me say thank you to all the organizations and individuals who prepared the report. As someone who has personally gone through the federal criminal justice system, I can tell you how badly it needs to be fixed. Right now the only people that benefit from the system are the people profiting from it: lawyers, judges, prison personnel, and the private companies supplying the prisons with good and services. If the system is designed to serve the public, who are fronting the costs for it; the victims of crime, who deserve a measure of retribution; and the prisoners, who are entitled to some fairness—it is failing miserably.
I think that overall the recommendations are solid. I was impressed with the comprehensive nature of the report—it encompasses a number of topics including over-criminalization, the juvenile system, indigent defense, federal sentencing and prisoner reentry, amongst other things. If just a quarter of the report is adopted by Congress, we would have a vastly improved criminal justice system within a few years. Another thing that I was particularly impressed about was that even though the report was comprehensive, it did contain several specific recommendations that were spot on. Take for example, this recommendation.
Apply stacking provision only to true recidivists. Congress should pass legislation to ensure that individuals who carry a firearm while committing a violent crime or drug trafficking offense face the 25-year mandatory minimum for repeat offenses only if they have been previously convicted and served a sentence.
I have witnessed several unjust sentences due to the stacking provision contained in 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Many times a defendant will commit several of these possession offenses over the course of a crime spree, only to learn later, after arrest, that each individual firearm possession carries a mandatory minimum sentence; usually, five years for the first offense and twenty for additional offenses. This was exactly what occurred to Adam Bentley Clausen, a 35-year old serving a 213-year sentence for robbery. Yes, robbery. Below is the math of Adam’s sentence:
- 8 years for all Hobbs Act convictions
- 5 years for the first 924 (c) conviction
- 25 years for second 924 (c) conviction
- 25 years for third 924 (c) conviction
- 25 years for fourth 924 (c) conviction
- 25 years for fifth 924 (c) conviction
- 25 years for sixth 924 (c) conviction
- 25 years for seventh 924(c) conviction
- 25 years for eighth 924 (c) conviction
- 25 years for ninth 924(c) conviction
Equals 213-year mandatory minimum sentence
I doubt anyone would agree that we should be paying for Adam to remain incarcerated for the rest of his life for robbery, when others with far more invidious crimes are out in less than ten. So this recommendation is great for rectifying unjust sentences. My only caveat would be that Congress should make the change to the statute retroactive. That way we are not stuck paying for people with undeserved life sentences.
I was also glad to see that the Smart on Crime’s recommendations included an amendment to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. While there are several problematic portions of the PLRA, none is worse than the “physical injury” requirement, which basically bars prisoner suits for claims involving free speech, religious rights, rape and sexual assault.
This report is an excellent product being pushed with tons of support. I pray that Congress will listen, and we can make the system fair, while reducing the amount of money we pump into corrections each year.
I will post next week about the few issues I think the report missed.