The Realities Of Criminal Justice Reform

Donald J. Mihalek Vice President, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation
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In 2007, Wendell Callahan was convicted of federal drug crimes for dealing crack cocaine and sentenced to 150 months in prison. Since then, more than four years was knocked off of his 12 and a half year sentence as he was considered a low-level drug offender. He twice benefited from modifications in federal sentencing guidelines via stroke of the pen changes from the federal Sentencing Commission which aim to “even the disparate treatment of crack vs. powdered cocaine convictions.” This was in part due to the view by some that crack and “urban crime” is more harshly punished than powdered cocaine – a “suburban crime.”

Crack, the crystalized form of cocaine is highly addictive. Back in the 1980s and 90s, crack was king and perpetuated a drug culture that fueled turf wars, a steadily rising body count and the indentured servitude of many just to achieve the high. The movie “New Jack City” showcased it.

There are some in Congress and in state legislatures that now see crack and other highly addictive substances as more benign. Federal proposals have included decreasing mandatory-minimum sentences, decreasing overall sentencing guidelines and allowing “low-level drug offenders” to either access courts to petition for a reduced sentence.

Some argue that we have over-criminalized drug crimes and cost savings could be achieved from releasing “low level” criminals before the end of their sentence. The problem is the federal system has few truly low level drug offenders. States do have many that are considered “low level offenders,” but also higher recidivism rates.

Despite its best intentions, the government has proven time and again that broad brush reforms often end with unintended consequences.

Shortly after his early release from federal prison, Callahan violently murdered his former girlfriend Erveena Hammonds and her two young daughters Breya and Anaesia with a knife. The girls were in the fifth and first grade. Callahan and the prosecuting attorney in this case agreed that, based upon the sentencing reductions, Callahan’s “good behavior” rated early release and he did not present a danger to the public.

Some may call this an aberration or a mistake – that this is not indicative of the majority who would benefit from criminal justice reform. But while we are engaging in a debate over drug criminals rights, perhaps we should question who was protecting the rights of these three innocent victims?

There is always room to create a more efficient, effective and fairer system where crimes and punishments are aligned appropriately. But criminal justice reform is not something to be done with a broad brush or without care. There are potentially dangerous and life threatening consequences when dealing with those we are now classifying as “low level non-violent criminals.” Instead of using a hammer to smash through to new policy, perhaps a scalpel approach is better.

As this debate rages and makes national headlines, the National Endowment for the Humanities is spending $250,000 on a traveling exhibit that displays collective memories of prisoners and the issues with so called mass incarceration. Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder if the 40,000 homeless veterans the 250,000 homeless children in the United States could have benefited from that cost savings?