September 17, 2013

Congress looks to relax mandatory prison terms

By Henry C. Jackson / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

This photo provided by Cindy Martinson shows her daughter Mandy Martinson. Every weekend, Cindy Martinson visits her daughter in federal prison, where Mandy Martinson, a first-time offender, is in the middle of 15-year sentence.

AP

Cindy Martinson said her daughter knew Dana was a drug dealer, but she was a drug addict and under Dana's control.

A local judge released Mandy Martinson on her own recognizance after her arrest and she eventually sobered up and resumed a job as a dental hygienist for several months.

But at trial, it became clear Mandy Martinson would serve a long sentence, Cindy Martinson said. Dana testified against his girlfriend, saying she performed menial tasks, like counting money, helping his drug operation. He also testified one of the guns found in the raid belonged to him but said Mandy sometimes carried it.

Like the local judge, the federal judge, James E. Gritzner, acknowledged that Martinson posed little threat. But Gritzner said his hands were tied by sentencing guidelines.

He sentenced Mandy Martinson to 15 years in prison for drug and weapons charges. She had never been arrested for anything prior to that. Now 35, Martinson's term is three years longer than Dana's because he agreed to testify against her and others.

Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said prisons are filled with inmates like Martinson. A former staffer at the libertarian Cato Institute, Stewart made sentencing reform her cause after her brother was arrested for growing marijuana and sentenced to a long mandatory sentence.

She said this is the most momentum she's seen behind efforts to change sentencing laws.

"Let's put it this way: I've been doing this for 22 years and this is the first time since 1993 I have felt significant attention from Congress on this issue," she said.

"There's a new era of bipartisanship on this issue," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, another champion of conservative groups and a leader on the issue in the Republican-held House.

Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced a bill in the House that is co-sponsored by several Democrats. It would put in place a post-sentencing "risk assessment system" allowing some prisoners to earn credits toward different living arrangements, such as a halfway house or house arrest.

"There are smarter, cheaper ways to deal with this than what we've been doing," he said. "And we have no choice," because of costs.

Leahy and Paul's bill in the Senate would expand a "safety valve" provision, which currently allows a small number of low-level federal drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimum penalties, to all federal crimes with mandatory minimum sentences if certain conditions were met.

Durbin and Lee's bill would expand the "safety valve" to more drug offenses, but not all federal crimes with mandatory minimum sentences.

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