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Angiulo: House Judiciary Committe Reports Out Sentencing Reform Act of 2015

Monday, November 23, 2015

 

Given how contentious Washington D.C. is rumored to be these days, the idea of a bipartisan bill should catch people's attention. That the bill in question, H.R. 3713, deals with something as important as how long people spend in prison for commonly charged crimes should also raise people's eyebrows. What we're talking about is the Federal Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 that was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee on November 18, 2015.

To put this bill in perspective we should first consider the source. The House Judiciary Committe, according to its website, has jurisdiction over legislative matters relating to the administration of justice in the federal courts, administrative bodies, and law enforement agencies. For several years, the Committee has chosen pursue a criminal justice reform initiative with efforts that include simplifying or clarifying federal criminal laws and decriminalizing trivial conduct like the interstate transportation of dentures.

The Sentencing Reform Act, however, is anything but trivial. The six major sections highlighted by the Commission focus on either extending, decreasing, or providing relief from mandatory minimum sentences.  

Of special note is the amendments proposed for drug offenses. The punishment for third serious drug offenses would be reduced from life imprisonment to 25 years. Similarly, second offenses would be reduced from 20 to 15 years.  Reflecting a shift in public policy concerns, the proposed bill also includes a sentencing enhancement for trafficking in Fentanyl.  Fentanyl, for those unaware, is a substance similar to heroin that has entered the legislative conversation at both the state and federal level.  

An interesting proposal relates to the relationship between the illegal use of firearms in violent crimes and drug crimes. When a defendant is convicted for using a firearm during a violent or drug crime they become subject to an enhanced penalty. H.R. 3713 has several major impacts on this law. One is a clarification that this enhancement is limited to those with previous convictions and sentenced time for similar behavior. Another is that the mandatory minimum for such a conviction would be reduced from 25 to 15 years. Felons that unlawfully posess firearms would also be facing a seperate increase from 10 years to 15 years in mandatory time.  

Some of the terms in the Judiciary Committee's proposed bill have retroactive application, including those related to crack cocaine, which means people presently serving time may be eligible for reductions in their sentence. If this bill is passed as written those reductions, and retroactivity, would depend on the circumstances of a defendant's case and criminal history.

Now that the bill has been reported out, it faces the journey through the house and senate to the president's desk. This legislative process will often result in modifications. Considering the intensity of national dialogue over the efficacy of our present sentencing structure any bipartisan effort to make changes might be warmly received. At the very least, it continues a conversation in Congress that started in communities all across the nation.  

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected]    

 

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