Over the past 25 years, the United States has enjoyed a steady and dramatic drop in crime. This broad-scale enhancement of public safety has reaped immeasurable benefits in terms of lives saved, strengthened communities and economic revitalization. But those gains may be lost if the U.S. Senate passes the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This bill would cut mandatory minimum sentences, make thousands of violent criminals eligible for release from prison, and ultimately make America more dangerous.
As a larger debate over criminal justice reform unfolds, it is important to understand what exactly this bill will do and clarify a few misconceptions. First, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act threatens to put thousands of criminals back on our streets. These sentence reductions will apply not to first-time offenders, but to repeat offenders — felons who have made the conscious choice to commit crimes over and over again. And they will not apply just to so-called "non-violent offenders," but to thousands of violent felons and armed career criminals who have used firearms in the course of their drug felonies or crimes of violence. The list of eligible prisoners also includes: felons convicted as juveniles of murder, rape, assault or other crimes for which they were justly tried as adults, and repeat felons whose past crimes include kidnapping, carjacking and armed robbery.
This bill will also reduce sentences not for those convicted of simple possession, but for major drug traffickers, ones who deal in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of heroin or thousands of pounds of marijuana. And let's be clear: Drug trafficking is not "non-violent," as the bill's proponents often claim. It's built on an entire edifice of violence, stretching from the narcoterrorists of South America to the drug-deal enforcers on our city streets. Those who think dealing drugs on a street corner while armed with a gun is a "non-violent" offense are likely ensconced in a rich suburb or a gated community.
What's worse, when we catch such criminals going forward, we won't be able to keep them locked up for the same sentences because this bill also reduces our mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. This means less severe sentences not for those convicted of simple possession, but for major drug traffickers whose activities rot out whole communities.
Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines exist, in part, to eliminate wide disparities in sentences and weed out bias and excessive leniency on the part of judges. And they work. The historic drops in crime over the last 25 years are the result of higher mandatory minimums put in place in the 1980s coupled with vigilant policing strategies. This decision to use this approach was reached through tough trial-and-error performed at local, state, and eventually federal levels. And it's a strategy that has a proven record of success, not just in terms of crime rates, but in terms of lives saved, families protected and communities healed. We shouldn't put that in jeopardy.
Make no mistake: These changes will have consequences. More than half of released prisoners are rearrested within a year and 77 percent are rearrested within five years. Those statistics make clear that we will see more crimes committed by those who are released early thanks to this bill.
We saw a tragic example of this last month in Columbus, Ohio, when a man named Wendell Callahan brutally killed his ex-girlfriend, Erveena Hammonds, and her two young daughters, 10-year-old Anaesia and 7-year old-Breya. A frantic 911 call from the scene said the two girls' throats had been slit. These murders were completely avoidable. Wendell Callahan walked out of federal prison in August 2014, but his original sentence should have kept him in jail until 2018. If he had been in jail instead of on the streets, a young family would still be alive today.
The Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information. That's why I've proposed the Criminal Consequences of Early Release Act, which would require the federal government to report on the recidivism rates of federal inmates released early from prison under sentencing reductions. The report would cover downward revisions to sentencing guidelines issued by the Sentencing Commission and any future reductions in mandatory minimum sentences passed by Congress. We should pass this bill before any further consideration of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
A better approach would be to shelve this bill altogether and pursue a stronger one that identifies and addresses truly non-violent, first-time drug possession inmates in the federal system, but keeps drug traffickers and other violent offenders in prison to finish their sentences. A stronger bill would also improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at rehabilitation and redemption while in prison, while protecting our communities. That is the best way forward toward repairing our criminal justice system.
Tom Cotton is a United States senator from Arkansas. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.