Top Republicans have brought changes to a bipartisan criminal sentencing reform bill in order to calm fears from fellow conservatives about releasing violent felons, though these changes might not be enough.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, and Utah Sen. Mike Lee are the three senators leading the charge to reform federal sentencing guidelines. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act not only changes minimum sentencing rules but it also affects current felons by retroactively reducing their punishment.
This retroactive elevation of prison time has led some to worry about a “Willie Horton” type situation. Horton is an infamous figure in politics due to his role in the 1988 presidential election. Michael Dukakis, then-Democratic nominee and Massachusetts governor, signed off on a weekend prison release for Horton. Horton proceeded to kidnap a couple and rape one of his victims.
A senate aide told The Washington Examiner, “You’re never going to eliminate the Willie Horton type of situation, the political ads aside, of somebody coming out [of prison] and committing a crime. It’s the nature of the human being.” He added, “you’re never going to have 100 percent certainty, that’s never going to happen. But it would be a shame to just not ever do any sentencing reform, any criminal justice reform, because of that.”
Grassley and his colleagues have released a memo to senators of a revised wording of his bill in order to avoid a “Willie Horton type of situation.” It says that “a term of imprisonment may only be reduced if the defendant has not been convicted of any serious violent felony.”
Conservative groups have taken issue with the this wording, specifically what constitutes a “serious violent felony.” Rick Manning of Americans for Limited Government said in a statement, “It is stunning that the GOP Senate would even consider sacrificing even a single victim in their quest to pander to the far left, Black Lives Matter narrative by emptying federal prisons. These so-called sentencing reforms would put the most hardened major drug dealers on the street early.”
A GOP senate aide told The Daily Caller, “that this revised legislation would somehow prevent the early release of violent criminals like Wendell Callahan is an affront to the facts.”
Callahan killed his ex-girlfriend and her two daughters in a January stabbing. Callahan was sentenced to prison in 2006 for 12 and a half years for selling cocaine and felony possession of a firearm. Federal criminal justice reform efforts reduced his sentence by more than four years.
The bill defines as a serious violent felony “an offense described in section 3559(c)(2)(F) of title 18, United States Code,” or “any other offense punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person.”
Callahan’s convictions are not in “section 3559(c)(2)(F) of title 18, United States Code.” When Callahan was convicted for the first time in Ohio for felonious assault in 1999, it was a third degree felony. It has since been upgraded to a second degree felony and carries an eight year maximum sentence. So it is highly unlikely that when it was considered less serious it had the ten year maximum term of imprisonment that would’ve made Callahan a “serious violent” felon.
The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Law Enforcement Action Network, and the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition sent a letter to U.S senators Monday expressing their opposition to the revised version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
“For the law enforcement community, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), as revised, will make it even more difficult for investigators and prosecutors to pursue the most culpable drug dealers and secure their cooperation to pursue others in drug distribution rings and networks, domestic and international,” the law enforcement groups wrote.
The letter continues to say: “The bill will over-expand judicial discretion to apply the leniency of the ‘safety valve’ to major drug traffickers, including those with multiple prior criminal convictions. Under current law, the safety valve permits minor participants in drug trafficking crimes with minor criminal records to reduce their sentencing exposure to avoid mandatory minimum sentences, even if they choose not to cooperate.”