VIEWS AND OPINIONS

IS CHARLES GRASSLEY “OVER THE BORDER” ON SENTENCING REFORM

Senator Charles Grassley has been on the public payroll since 1975 either as a congressman or senator from Iowa. He is 81 and still likes to travel the state to campaign (claims he goes to every county in the state) and seems to be a fan of Twitter where he likes to tweet about politics and softer matters, like basketball and the weather, as he did in one stream recently. He’s been around a long time and his state doesn’t have many of the problems of denser states, with large cities. The crime rate in Iowa isn’t that bad in general and some say that some cities in Iowa are 89 percent safer than all the other cities in the U.S. Certainly, Iowa does not have any border “problems”- it is located in the “American Heartland.”

OUR FREE OPINION

Longevity brings rewards. Grassley is now Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and in that capacity, recently addressed the committee to express his disapproval of most of the suggested federal sentencing reforms that have been advanced by some Democrats and Republicans this past year or so. He said he wanted to address the “realities” and expose the myths that have been circulating throughout the Senate; specifically, he said it is a myth that “thousands of low-level drug offenders, like people smoking marijuana,” are languishing in federal prison for long terms. He contends that such “myths” are used to justify “lenient” and dangerous proposals. He purports to cite statistics to support his belief that “wholesale-one–way lenient” changes in drug sentencing are simply not appropriate; he places much of the focus on the cases he claims “arose along the Southwest Border”- “non-citizens.” He says “the median amount of possession in these Southwest border cases. . . was about 48 pounds”. Apparently astounded by what he just said, he then remarked: “Can you imagine being in possession of 48 pounds of an illegal drug”? The Senator went on to quote several other statistics and figures- few of which were relevant to the issue of sentencing reform. He found support in his views from people like Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. who he quotes as saying “Federal Mandatory minimum sentences have struck terror into the hearts of career criminals . . . and have provided longer periods of respite for the impoverished and crime-riddled communities that can least afford their return”.  Clarke is the guy who appeared on Fox news bashing Eric Holder and the White House for their “divisive politics” on race issues and their “fictitious war” on women slogans. Again, Clarke added nothing important to the real issue of whether federal sentencing reform is needed. The reform requested has nothing to do with “career criminals.” That is the problem in cases like sentencing reform- people use scary words to support their positions no matter how unfounded they are; possession of marijuana is not a Mexican or race issue, and career offenders are not the focus of modern sentencing reform solutions. The bigger problem here (Clarke is just a very political sheriff in an old city who uses confirmation bias to support his political agenda), is that Grassley is Chairman of the Judiciary Committee!- he is expected to talk intelligently, at least when he is on the Senate floor. That did not happen here. Maybe Grassley should stick to Twitter and basketball and leave the “Southwest Border- non-citizens” out of the equation- it would sound less tainted.

UPDATES: 7/28/15: The moves to reform federal sentencing across the country appear to be gaining momentum, in a bipartisan way, Senator Grassley, notwithstanding. The New York Times reports:

[“Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, and Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, are sponsoring a bill that would change sentencing on the front end and also change the federal probation system. Another provision would give certain qualifying prisoners the opportunity to get 33 percent off their sentences”].

Such proposed legislation, and similar offered bills, while probably not entirely adequate to confront the recklessly designed “mandatory minimum” legislation passed during the “drug scare” in the 80’s, seem to be gathering favor with all but the most draconian-minded and uninformed lawmakers. This is a good thing. While few doubt the potential danger of certain types of street drugs, and the havoc they can cause, we now know for sure that lengthy prison sentences are not the answer to this problem- especially for those unorganized users caught up in the conspiracy.  Many progressive courts across the judicial spectrum are utilizing specialized drug courts, staffed with judges and court specialists who are specially trained in drug laws and treatment options. It is not unusual for an addict to be arrested on a Tuesday and be in a treatment facility by Wednesday; while offenders are held accountable, efficient avenues of treatment are paramount.

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