In May, a Colorado defendant facing ten years in prison for cocaine possession persuaded a federal judge to hold off on his sentencing, on the possibility that Congress would soon amend federal sentencing law and his prison term would not be quite so draconian. Weighing the likelihood that the the “Safety Valve Act” proposed by bipartisan coalitions in both houses of Congress to give judges more discretion in drug sentencing would pass soon or ever, Judge William J. Martinez concluded that “the balance of the equities and the interests of justice weigh in favor of continuing the date of defendant’s sentence hearing.”
The Court acknowledges that the Act is still in the early stages of legislation and, given the ineptitude of the current Congress, any guess as to whether it will progress and, if so, how quickly, would be pure speculation. However, it is notable that a co-sponsor of the Act in the Senate, Patrick Leahy, is the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which increases the likelihood that the Act will at least be brought for a vote in that Committee. Moreover, the Act has bi-partisan support in both the House and the Senate, which significantly increases its chances of passage.
Since then, odds have begun to look even better that the act could pass Congress, if, as Judge Martinez notes, Congress is capable of overcoming its own “ineptitude.” Unlikely interests including the American Legislative Exchange Council and the world’s largest association of correctional officers have endorsed mandatory minimum reform, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder brought attention to the problem in an address announcing he would use his own office’s power to limit mandatory minimum sentences.
This week, another defendant in Colorado asked a federal judge to postpone his own sentence. He is facing a statutory minimum of 20 years in jail for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. “Given Mr. Chitty’s age and poor health, such a sentence is likely to translate into a life sentence,” his lawyer argued.
Recent moves by the Department of Justice to set new law enforcement priorities address both of these issues — harsh inflexible minimum drug sentences and aging prisoners — by setting new prosecutorial priorities to limit mandatory minimums for low-level offenders, and instituting new standards for “compassionate release” for older and dying prisoners.
Federal judges have long decried that mandatory minimum sentences imposed by statute tie their hands to impose proportional sentences to low-level drug offenders. But most have merely expressed their frustration through judicial opinions in which they impose those sentences under protest.
Martinez’s decision to postpone sentencing until November is the latest creative tactic aimed at limiting the burden on both defendants and the prison system of mandatory minimum sentences. As Martinez points out, defendant Andrew Bartholomew will be held in pre-trial detention until the sentencing regardless, and “[t]he fact that he may end up serving a greater portion of such sentence in pre-trial custody of the United States Marshall rather than post-judgment custody of the Bureau of Prisons is immaterial to the Court.” But it is only a stop-gap measure, and demonstrates his confidence that Congress can accomplish this one, bipartisan aim.