Darryl A. Goldberg
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Will this be the year Congress reforms the federal criminal justice system?

Over the last few years, it's become increasingly apparent that the United States is facing a very real problem in terms of the overall size of its federal prison population. Indeed, the Justice Department recently warned that the amount of money needed to fund the federal prison system is now threatening to surpass the amounts allocated for both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In light of this grim reality, a group of bipartisan senators came together last year and devised a comprehensive plan that would help reduce the size of the federal prison population. Specifically, it called for judges to be vested with greater sentencing discretion in drug crime cases and for some of the mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes to be reduced.

While the plan was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 15-5 vote, it was subsequently shelved after some influential GOP senators expressed concerns that it would allow for the release of violent felons.

Fast forward to two weeks ago and a group of now-37 bipartisan senators held a press conference to announce that they'd revised the plan to account for these concerns. Indeed, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) called it "the best chance in a generation to reform our federal drug sentencing law."

While the new proposal still calls for greater discretion for judges and a reduction in mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, it also made some of the following concessions:

  • The removal of a provision calling for lower mandatory minimum sentences for those found to be in the unlawful possession of a firearm, and who had three prior convictions for either serious drug offenses or violent felonies (i.e., armed career criminals)
  • The addition of a provision calling for the creation of a mandatory minimum sentence for drug crimes involving the highly-addictive opiate fentanyl

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, indicated that he would be discussing introducing the measure to the Senate floor with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). However, experts indicate that the prospects of a major federal criminal justice reform bill being heard remain uncertain given the looming summer recess and the impending presidential election.

Further complicating matters, they say, is that any parallel sentencing reform measure to come out of the House would likely include a provision calling for the strengthening of the mens rea requirement in certain white collar crime cases, something that Democratic lawmakers remain staunchly opposed to given that it could potentially encourage corporate malfeasance.

Stay tuned for updates …

If you are facing any sort of federal criminal charges -- drug crimes, white collar crimes -- consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible. The stakes are simply too high.

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Darryl A. Goldberg
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