Sentencing News

The Eighth Amendment assures U.S. citizens that they will not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment if they are convicted of a crime. This amendment has been extensively litigated, with dozens of cases reaching the Supreme Court. Recently, one state has decided to remove the death penalty. The Federal government is also considering changing the current regime of sentencing for drug crimes.
In Washington State, the Senate recently passed a bill abolishing the death penalty. It passed on bipartisan lines. It is now headed to the House of Representatives for a vote. Republican Senator Maureen Walsh sponsored the bill, calling the death penalty a “flawed policy.” The bill aims to remove the death penalty entirely, and instead require a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Another factor in getting rid of the sentence is cost. In 2015, Seattle University released a study showing that death-penalty cases cost $1 million more in cases where capital punishment is not on the table. The costs are in large part because of the number of appeals that take place after a death sentence is given. The bill originally included a provision allowing the measure to go to the polls, letting voters decide. However, the Senate rejected this amendment. One Senator, Republican Mark Schoesler, voted against the measure. He expressed concern about the viability of life in prison. He stated he had no trust that life without parole actually means that. He stated he did not have absolute confidence in the judicial system.

Washington State has tried to pass a bill removing the death penalty for a few years. In reality, the Governor instituted a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014, but previous bills never made it past the committees. The death penalty has been abolished in at least 19 states and the District of Columbia. In addition to Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania have recently established moratoriums to the practice. Given the difficulties states have had with acquiring the appropriate drugs to ensure a painless death, and the evolving moral standards of society, it seems inevitable that the death penalty will continue to be heavily discussed and legislated in the years to come.

As for Federal law, the Senate Judiciary Committee has recently passed a bill which aims to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Its future is uncertain, particularly with the heavy anti-drug Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Act would allow judges to have more discretion in sentencing. Inmates previously punished under controversial crack cocaine drug sentencing laws could request leniency from the courts. The Act also has created incentives for low-risk prisoners to participate in various programs to help them return to society after their incarceration.

Overall, the bill has had bipartisan support, and is sponsored by Republican Chuck Grassley. However, the bill has not yet won over Sessions or the Department of Justice. Sessions has called the legislation a “grave error,” fearing that it would reduce sentences “for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals.” In response, Grassley criticized Sessions’ overstepping his executive bounds by trying to legislate from his position. The White House has also reportedly approved of a letter sent by Sessions criticizing the bill. This could prove detrimental to a proposal that has so far had wide support on both sides of the aisle.

Nearly one-half of all inmates serving time in federal prison have been convicted of drug crimes. Most proponents of the bill argue that tougher punishments for drug criminals will not adequately address the drug epidemic currently facing the country. The current minimum sentences in place have been widely criticized for disproportionately affecting minorities. The Committee has tried twice in two years to help reduce prison sentences for nonviolent offenders serving sentences for drug crimes. Perhaps this time they will have better luck in passing the bill into law.

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