Former AGs, DEA Officials Oppose Sentencing Reform

Praise current system’s ‘balance’ between congressional action and judicial discretion

A Sacramento, Calif. prison / AP
May 12, 2014

Nearly 30 former top law enforcement officials and attorneys urged Senate leaders to defeat a bill aimed at reforming drug sentencing laws in a letter released Monday.

In a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), 29 former high-ranking officials, including two U.S. attorneys general and three Drug Enforcement Agency administrators, said "our current sentencing regimen strikes the right balance between congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels, due regard for appropriate judicial direction, and the preservation of public safety."

The letter comes in response to a push by some in the Senate to ease punishments for those convicted of drug-related offenses.

A bipartisan group of senators including Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Rand Paul (R., Ky.) support the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would scale back federal sentencing guidelines for drug crimes.

"Mandatory minimums are costly, unfair and do not make our country safer," Leahy and Paul wrote in a joint op-ed in USA Today last year. "They have played a major role in overcrowding our prisons and have confined us to an unsustainable and irresponsible economic path."

The Obama administration and current Attorney General Eric Holder, who has pushed for sentencing reform in recent months, also support the bill, saying the current guidelines crowd prisons and disproportionately impact minorities.

However, the former drug war officials argue the Senate bill would reduce mandatory minimum penalties for federal drug trafficking offenses by as much as 50 percent.

"We are deeply concerned about the impact of sentencing reductions of this magnitude on public safety," the letter reads. "We believe the American people will be ill-served by the significant reduction of sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes that involve the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs like heroin, methamphetamines and PCP."

"We are aware of little public support for lowering the minimum required sentences for these extremely dangerous and sometimes lethal drugs," the letter continues. "In addition, we fear that lowering the minimums will make it harder for prosecutors to build cases against the leaders of narcotics organizations and gangs—leaders who often direct violent and socially destructive organizations that harm people throughout the United States."

Groups supporting the bill, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), say the former officials’ concerns are not shared by their colleagues.

"Officials who are currently leading the Department of Justice, as well as prosecutors who are currently trying federal drug cases and correctional officers who are currently staffing federal prisons, all feel the modest reforms contained in the Smarter Sentencing Act are not only appropriate, but necessary," Julie Stewart, the president of FAMM, said in a statement to the Free Beacon. "Reducing federal mandatory minimums preserves prosecutorial leverage in federal drug cases while insuring that the Justice Department can continue to provide full funding for law enforcement, victims’ services, and reentry."

Signatories of Monday’s letter include Attorney General and United States District Judge Michael Mukasey; former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger; and Peter Bensinger, DEA Administrator during President Jimmy Carter's term.