The “Smarter Sentencing Act” Is Pretty Dumb

by GREGORY D. LEE February 17, 2014

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently approved the "Smarter Sentencing Act" to overhaul federal drug sentencing guidelines. The act essentially reduces in half mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses.

The Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Judge Patti Saris, a President Bill Clinton appointee who was nominated as the Chairperson by President Obama, said in a statement that the act will reduce overcrowding and budget concerns for federal prisons. Other supporters of the act say it will also give judges greater discretion in sentencing convicted defendants.

Of course, our chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, supports the act. However, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys does not. A spokesperson for the organization said, "We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as ‘broken' or in need of major reconstruction. Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving." I agree.

Even the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance, that advocates the legalization of marijuana, opposes the legislation.

These mandatory minimum sentences were put in place because many liberal federal judges were reluctant to give stiff sentences to drug traffickers and often quickly returned them back to the streets where they continued their drug dealing activities. The mandatory minimum sentences, coupled with sentencing guidelines federal judges were initially, but no longer, required to follow, was a game changer in federal drug law enforcement. Many defendants, who would not cooperate with law enforcement before mandatory minimum sentences, now were eager to disclose the identities of cohorts to avoid harsh sentences. These were high level transnational drug traffickers, not marijuana users as the media would like the public to believe, that were filling federal prisons, causing overcrowding. No longer could a significant drug trafficker be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and then released 18 months later on parole. Federal parole was abolished, and these sophisticated criminals had to serve at least 85% of their time before being eligible for release because of good behavior.

I suppose this ill-conceived act will reduce federal prison population and save money, but at what price?

Last month, the New York Times reported, "In a sign of how drastic the epidemic of drug addiction here has become, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday devoted his entire State of the State Message to what he said was "a full-blown heroin crisis" gripping Vermont. "In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us," he said."

Where do you think all these addicts get their heroin? And, should the people trafficking heroin suddenly be rewarded by having their potential sentences reduced in half when convicted of a federal drug crime? Tell that to Gov. Shumlin and the relatives of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

President Obama recently said in an interview with the New Yorker that marijuana was no more dangerous than alcohol and the new laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington are "important."  This brought courageous criticism by DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart and others in law enforcement who know that marijuana is a gateway drug to the use of other controlled substances, including heroin. Not all marijuana users will become heroin addicts, but every heroin addict I ever encountered as a DEA special agent started with marijuana.

Between the president's comments, lighter sentences for crack cocaine sales, medical marijuana dispensaries, legalization of the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, AG Holder instructing his U.S. Attorneys not to indict drug traffickers for crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence, and efforts in Congress to soften drug trafficking penalties, the erroneous message becomes clear to our youth that using drugs isn't a big deal or the federal government wouldn't tolerate states that violate federal marijuana laws and consider lowering the penalties for selling it and other drugs.

Since the "war on drugs" began with President Richard Nixon, every time there is a Democrat president he orders a retreat, when the opposite should be the case. 

Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Gregory D. Lee is a retired Supervisory Special Agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the author of three criminal justice textbooks. While on DEA diplomatic assignment in Pakistan, he was involved in the investigation of several notable terrorism events and arrests. He recently retired after more than 39 years of active and reserve service from the U.S. Army Reserve as a Chief Warrant Officer Five Special Agent for the Criminal Investigation Division Command, better known as CID. In 2011 he completed a combat tour of duty in Afghanistan while on special assignment to the Special Operations Command Europe. Visit his website at and contact him at

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