The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

September 17, 2013

Congress considers relaxing mandatory prison terms

WASHINGTON — Every weekend, Cindy Martinson treks from her home in Mason City, Iowa, about 160 miles roundtrip to Waseca, Minn. She visits the federal prison there, where her daughter Mandy Martinson, a first-time offender, is in the middle of 15-year prison sentence.

Cindy Martinson knows her daughter made mistakes and broke the law. Mandy Martinson was at a low point in her life, her mother said, addicted to methamphetamine when she allowed a drug dealer she was dating to move in with her. Within weeks, police raided her house.

“She hurt herself and her family. And she knows that. But it is just not fair,” Cindy Martinson, 64, said. “It’s got to change not just for her. Everything is so overcrowded and it is just wrong.”

Concerns about both the fairness and the costs of cases like Mandy Martinson’s have been growing in Congress, and the issue is gaining new speed as an unusual coalition of tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats push for the largest overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines yet.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing this week on minimum sentences. The committee is considering two bills, each sponsored by a liberal Democrat and a tea party Republican, that would allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentences in many circumstances, particularly for some drug crimes. Wednesday’s hearing is the first step in legislation that advocates and lawmakers in both parties say stands a chance of winning enactment by the end of the year.

Attorney General Eric Holder has shown interest in working with Congress to make permanent changes in sentencing laws. Holder last month instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Sentencing reform lands in an area of rare common ground between liberals and conservatives. Just a few years ago, it was an issue shunned by many politicians in both parties, lest they be labeled soft on crime.

Now it’s made unlikely teammates of tea party libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a liberal Vermont Democrat. They’re co-sponsoring one of the two sentencing bills now before the committee. Co-sponsoring the other one are Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, another conservative championed by the tea party, and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, liberal Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois.

The four senators make similar cases for sentencing reform: Many of the sentences are unfair, prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent drug offenders, and it’s costing taxpayers too much money.

Prison costs have ballooned in the past 30 years, with the Bureau of Prisons budget now around $6.8 billion, or about 25 percent of the Justice Department’s total. The yearly cost of housing a federal prisoner ranges from $21,000 to $33,000, depending on the prison’s level of security, and is steadily rising.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world with more than 1.5 million prisoners in 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, including more than 218,000 federal prisoners. About half of federal prisoners are drug offenders, nearly all of whom faced some form of mandatory minimum sentencing. They include Mandy Martinson.

Police raided her house in Mason City in January 2004. She was 27 at the time. They found 10 pounds of marijuana, two pounds of high-purity methamphetamine known as “ice” and two guns, components of a northern Iowa drug ring run by her then-boyfriend, whom court documents identify as Justin Dana.

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.

 

1
Text Only
News
  • State: Discard raw milk from Greenfield Dairy

    MIDDLEBURG — Consumers should discard raw milk purchased recently from the Greenfield Dairy of Middleburg, which also has temporarily suspended production after Listeria monocytogenes was discovered in the product following routine testing, the state Department of Agriculture announced today.

    April 18, 2014

  • Penn State police: Three posed nude at Nittany shrine

    STATE COLLEGE — Penn State police say three male students who reportedly posed nude for a photo at the university’s Nittany Lion Shrine face school discipline.

    April 18, 2014

  • State unemployment rate drops to 6 percent in March

    HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s jobless rate has continued its steady decline. The state Department of Labor and Industry says unemployment fell two-tenths of a percentage point to 6 percent in March.

    April 18, 2014

  • Report: Pennsylvania forests impacted by drilling

    PITTSBURGH — A small portion of Pennsylvania state forest land has been impacted by shale gas drilling, but many questions remain about how to manage the politically sensitive issue that is opposed by many residents, according to a new report.

    April 18, 2014

  • TRAFFIC ADVISORY: Route 45 east of Montandon

    MONTANDON — A paving project is slowing traffic today on Route 45 east of Montandon.

    April 18, 2014

  • Accident victims remain in critical condition this morning

    DANVILLE - Victims from serious traffic accidents the past two days remain in critical condition this morning at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.

    April 18, 2014

  • Porn prank riles Bucknell University president

    LEWISBURG — A fake email that contained a link to a pornographic website was sent to Bucknell students, faculty and staff on Tuesday night.

    April 18, 2014

  • 28-mile cross walk steps off in Northumberland

    SUNBURY — Two “cross walks” this morning, including a 28-mile trek from Northumberland to Beaver Springs, are among the highlights of Easter activities and services in the Valley.

    April 18, 2014

  • rsstrike18a.jpg Picketing begins at four Danville schools

    DANVILLE — It started like any other school day during the year, with teachers up early and arriving at school at 7:30 in the morning.

     

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Line Mountain board, teachers to talk Tuesday

    MANDATA — Line Mountain school board President Troy Laudenslager is far more optimistic this week than he has been as the board and the Line Mountain Education Association head into their first contract negotiation session in three months.

    April 18, 2014

The Daily Marquee
Poll

How do you eat your chocolate Easter bunny?

Feet first
Tail first
Ears first
     View Results
Photo Galleries
The Valley

Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.