House Sentencing Reform Bill, Like the Senate Version, Makes Some Penalties Harsher

The sentence reductions in both bills are nevertheless a major improvement.

The sentencing reform bill unveiled by the House Judiciary Committee yesterday largely tracks the one unveiled by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, except for differences over which penalties should be harsher. That’s right: Both sentencing reform bills, while aiming to ameliorate the injustices inflicted by a mindlessly punitive criminal justice sytem, include longer sentences for certain offenses.

The Senate bill, known as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, creates two new mandatory minimums: five years for providing certain goods or services to terrorists and 10 years for “interstate domestic violence” resulting in death. It also increases, from 10 to 15 years, the maximum penalty for gun possession by various categories of people who are arbitrarily stripped of their Second Amendment rights under current law, including illegal drug users, undocumented immigrants, anyone who has ever been subjected to court-ordered psychiatric treatment, and anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony, violent or not.

The House bill, known as the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, includes that last change but omits the new mandatory minimums. Instead it increases the penalties for heroin offenses when the drug is mixed with fentanyl, a much more potent opioid that dealers sometimes use to fortify diluted heroin, occasionally with lethal results. The Sentencing Reform Act prescribes an additional, consecutive sentence of up to five years for offenses involving fentanyl-spiked heroin.

Despite the gratuitous penalty increases, the Senate and House bills take a major step toward less unjust sentences, as I explain in my Forbes column this week. Legislation that could take 40 years off a small-time pot dealer’s sentence, not to mention free thousands of crack offenders years earlier than expected, is nothing to sneeze at. Looking forward, the changes in these bills would mean shorter sentences for many of the 10,000 or so people who are convicted of federal drug offenses carrying mandatory minimums each year. Furthermore, the backing of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) means the legislation has a good chance of actually being enacted.

The House bill omits the provisions in Title II of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which deal with the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners. The House Judiciary Committee says it “continues to work on additional bills that address other aspects of our criminal justice system, including over-criminalization, prison and reentry reform—including youth and juvenile justice issues—improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform.” The committee plans to “roll out more bills addressing these topics over the coming weeks.”

 Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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