Final week, information broke that a bipartisan compromise on legal justice reform had been tentatively reached, teeing up the First Step Act for passage earlier than Congress’ lame-duck session ends subsequent month. The Home-passed model of the invoice has been stalled for greater than 5 months, however a behind-the-scenes settlement so as to add sentencing reform to the jail reform package deal has given new life to the laws.
President Trump shortly embraced the information, telling lawmakers to get the invoice on his desk. “Did I hear that word ‘bipartisan’? Did I hear that word? That’s a nice word,” Trump quipped at a White Home occasion, surrounded by lawmakers from each events and his son-in-law-turned-advisor, Jared Kushner, who had been pushing the laws. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Chief Mitch McConnell reportedly informed Trump there is probably not sufficient time for the Senate to take up the invoice earlier than the legislative session ends on December 14.
Over the weekend, McConnell’s Republican colleagues, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, hit the Sunday circuit to strain Senate leaders to maneuver the laws ahead earlier than the year-end recess. Advocates for the laws, comparable to Justice Motion Community, the nation’s largest bipartisan group pushing legal justice reform, are likewise pushing the Senate majority chief to convey the First Step Act to the ground.
‘Big Government Run Amok’
“Our current criminal justice system is big government run amok,” stated Lauren Krisai, a senior coverage analyst with the Justice Motion Community. Krisai calls the First Step Act an opportunity to “begin to correct that in a meaningful way,” including that “with the support of President Trump, the Fraternal Order of Police, faith groups, advocacy groups, and legislators from both sides of the aisle, there’s really no excuse for Leader McConnell to not put this important bill on the floor.”
Not all Republican senators help this laws. Final week, in an op-ed for USA Immediately, first-term Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton referred to as the act “a misguided effort to let serious felons out of prison.” Slightly than move it, Cotton advised Congress first clear out the overreaching federal code and federal laws which collectively create as many as 300,000 legal violations. The junior senator from Arkansas additionally argued that the felony code wants harsher sentences for fentanyl traffickers to deal with the present opioid disaster.
With lower than a month till Congress recesses, the destiny of the invoice doubtless will depend on whether or not the feel-good legal justice reform narrative takes maintain or whether or not the “weak on crime” counter establishes a foothold within the public’s consciousness. Sadly, whereas the dueling narratives compete for media area, the substantive particulars of the proposed modifications stay ignored, with the press offering solely cursory protection of the authorized modifications the compromise invoice would undertake.
For example, The New York Occasions reported: “the compromise would eliminate the so-called stacking regulation that makes it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense; expand the ‘drug safety valve’ allowing judges to sidestep mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders; and shorten mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.”
Are Journalists Even Reporting This Appropriately?
The first compromise listed within the Occasions write-up struck a wierd twine: Why would Democrats, who push for extra gun management, search to remove a criminal offense associated to the possession of a firearm? And why would Republicans, who object to the federal government infringing on law-abiding residents’ proper to bear arms within the identify of combating gun violence, search to guard criminals from punishment for possessing a gun?
The reply took a while to find however is straightforward sufficient: They don’t. Opposite to the Occasions’ superficial reporting, the proposed compromise doesn’t get rid of the sentencing enhancement for possession a firearm whereas committing one other offense. Fairly, the floated change would add a minor tweak to the governing regulation to guarantee that first-time offenders usually are not handled the identical as repeat offenders. Let’s break it down.
The statutory provision at concern, Part 924(c) of the federal code, offers for a further 5 years in jail for a defendant who possesses a gun throughout a criminal offense of violence or a drug trafficking crime. For the second (and every subsequent offense), 25 further years of imprisonment is tacked on to the sentence for the underlying crime. These further phrases of imprisonment are obligatory.
As presently interpreted by the Supreme Courtroom, the five-year and 25-year obligatory sentencing enhancements of Part 924(c) are collected or “stacked” in the identical trial. Thus, if a defendant is convicted of a number of counts of possessing a gun throughout a criminal offense of violence or a drug trafficking offense, the decide should add 5 years to the defendant’s sentence for the primary rely, then 25 years for the second and all future counts of conviction—although the convictions all stem from the identical trial.
The Reform Poster Boy Isn’t What He’s Been Portrayed
Weldon Angelos has grow to be the poster boy for these pushing to vary Part 924(c). In 2004, 24-year-old Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in federal jail for possessing a handgun when he bought a number of hundred dollars’ value of marijuana to an undercover informant on three separate events.
Beneath Part 924(c), possession of the gun in the course of the first sale resulted in a compulsory five-year sentence, however the second sale triggered a further 25-year sentence, as did the third sale. Thus, for possessing a gun whereas promoting about $1,000 value of marijuana, Angelos acquired a 55-year jail sentence, though he was later launched from jail in 2016, apparently when the federal prosecutor did not object to Angelos’ movement for a lowered sentence.
The statutory language of the proposed change to Part 924(c)—leaked to The New York Occasions—is minor, however would have vital penalties to these equally located. The related provision of the proposed laws would make clear that second and later convictions would solely set off the 25-year obligatory sentencing enhancement if the primary conviction had already grow to be “final.”
A conviction turns into last solely after the proper to attraction has expired, so beneath the modification a defendant, comparable to Angelos, would obtain a five-year obligatory sentence beneath Part 924(c) for possessing a gun throughout a drug deal, assuming he had no prior convictions on the time of the trial. That five-year sentence would then be on prime of no matter sentence stemmed from the underlying drug offense. However the further 25 years of imprisonment wouldn’t be stacked on prime until the defendant commits one other crime.
This proposed change appears imminently affordable. As Brett L. Tolman, the U.S. lawyer for the district of Utah on the time Angelos was sentenced, defined, “the draconian sentence mandated for Angelos seemed disconnected to the purpose of the law.” Now an advocate for legal justice reform and an lawyer in personal apply in Utah, Tolman famous that Congress meant Part 924 to punish these with prior convictions extra severely, however in apply first-time offenders, similar to Angelos, obtain sentences far exceeding these wanted for retribution or rehabilitation.
Whereas Angelos’ case highlights an obvious injustice with the functioning of Part 924(c), the unreported information underlying Angelos’ conviction increase one other query for Congress and the general public to think about: How harshly ought to criminals who possess weapons be sentenced?
Each time there’s a mass capturing, gun management activists demand extra gun legal guidelines, implying that if solely america had commonsense gun legal guidelines, gun violence wouldn’t happen. However what of the criminals who possess weapons? And possess them illegally?
There’s A lot Extra to the Angelos Story
That is the place “the rest of the story” is available in to play. Though the press likes to painting Angelos as a younger household man—the daddy of two young children—and an up-and-coming document producer who inadvertently acquired caught up in a drug sting, the courtroom data inform a special story.
First, along with the three Part 924 gun possession counts that triggered the 55-year sentence, a jury convicted Angelos on 13 different counts, together with money-laundering, two counts of possessing a stolen firearm, and one rely of possessing a firearm which had its serial quantity filed off. Whereas Angelos technically certified as a first-time offender, he can be higher described as an offender caught for the primary time as an grownup.
Angelos had a earlier juvenile conviction on a felony firearm cost and an extended juvenile arrest report for a variety of different offenses. Moreover, based on the appellate courtroom choice, the drug gross sales that hit Angelos with the 55-year obligatory minimal have been gross sales to a confidential informant who was “a fellow gang member.” Removed from dealing medicine on the aspect, the proof indicated that Angelos had bought medicine frequently for a number of years.
A search of Angelos’ condo additionally resulted within the seizure of three kilos of marijuana, a Glock 17 9mm handgun, a Ruger P85 9mm handgun, and a Walther PPK .380 handgun, in addition to a big cache of money. A later search of a home Angelos rented uncovered a number of giant duffle luggage containing marijuana residue, a bulletproof vest, one other handgun, and a Bushmaster XM15-E2S—an assault weapon within the parlance of the gun management crowd. The actuality of Angelos’ background is far more troubling than the media and a few proponents of this laws would have you ever consider.
But whereas a lot of the media portrays Angelos’ historical past sympathetically, Tolman harbors no such illusions. “None of the prosecutors involved in the case viewed Angelos’ criminal conduct naively,” Tolman famous. “He was definitely on a dangerous road at the time he was arrested, but a 55-year sentence is crazy.” On the similar time, Tolman admits that Angelos’ almost lifetime sentence doubtless served as a wakeup name, prompting the younger man to show his life round following his launch from jail.
As Tolman sees it, the advised modification to Part 924 and the opposite modifications proposed within the compromise floated for the First Step Act strike a needed stability: “All of the changes proposed address problems with the current sentencing code, while assuring prosecutors retain the tools necessary to obtain tough sentences for dangerous criminals.”
We’ll quickly know whether or not Congress additionally sees the First Step Act as hanging the suitable stability between deterrence and punishment and justice. The greater query, although, could also be for Second Modification advocates and gun management activists to debate: How can we, as a rustic, implement the various commonsense gun legal guidelines already on the books with out resorting to lifetime sentences for criminals?
Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served almost 25 years as a everlasting regulation clerk to a federal appellate decide and is a former full-time school member and present adjunct teacher on the school of enterprise on the College of Notre Dame.
The views expressed listed here are these of Cleveland in her personal capability.