Former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik sent a letter to Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) this week regarding his stance on sentencing reform. This comes in response to Sen. Cotton’s opposition to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRACA) introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Senator Cotton, who has been a staunch ally of the taxpayers, is critical of some of the sentencing changes found in the reform package. However, there is a growing consensus that the reforms in the Senate package would enhance overall safety rather than hurt it.
Kerik—who spent time in prison—took special issue with Sen. Cotton’s characterization of the intent of the bill, as the senator framed SRACA as a “criminal leniency bill.” Kerik states that
As anyone that’s as familiar with our criminal justice system as I am, or who has worked within, or lived within a prison knows all too well, there is nothing lenient about the deprivation of freedom. Nothing.
He goes on to point out the staggering failure of a justice system that is more likely to release a reoffender than a reformed member of society
There is a reason, as you [Sen. Cotton] have stated, that more than half of those released are rearrested within a year, and 77 percent are rearrested within 5 years, but it has nothing to do with mandatory minimums. It is because we send these people to prison demanding that they act like men and women, but treat them like children and animals.
SRACA strives to reduce America’s crime rate as it restructures some drug sentences while investing in proven rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenders. Rather than simply warehousing low level offenders for long periods of time, SRACA focuses resources on the people who pose the biggest threat to society and provides treatment to the folks least likely to reoffend. Similar approaches have resulted in shrinking prison populations in concert with plummeting crime rates in several red states.
The reforms would be aimed at cases like Celestia Mixon’s, who was sentenced in 2009 with a 15 year mandatory minimum sentence for conspiracy to sell small amounts of methamphetamines. The judge who sentenced Celestia opted for the lowest possible sentence because current law did not allow him to take the positive strides in her life she had already been making into consideration. Cases like Celestia’s are not unique, and the public benefit of storing her in prison for 15 years is dubious.
While there are now many proven instances of successful reform at the state level, the actual link between the excessive mandatory minimums that Senator Cotton advocates for is tenuous. This is why leading conservative voices have already come out in support of overall reform. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson—a committed reformer—has been a vocal supporter of mandatory minimum reform. Former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey is likewise supportive of Senator Grassley’s reform package.
Polling conducted by the US Justice Action Network shows overwhelming public support for reform. About 70 percent of voters in select swing states express support for a justice system that emphasizes treatment and appropriate sentence lengths. Hopefully, Congress will listen to state legislators and their own constituents on this issue.