Responds Brandenburg: "We don't really agree that all the information would be there. Prosecutors make choices, maybe to go after a violent person on a drug charge to get a mandatory sentence. The evidence for the other crime was never preserved or presented. We just don't know in a lot of cases. You have a risk of letting violent folks out without realizing it. We have judges estimating that there would be 16,000 cases. More time would be taken away from prosecutions. When you're adding up reasons to do it, it becomes a problem."
But Representative Bill Hughes (D- New Jersey), a member of the conference committee, says the standard ought to be what's the right thing to do, not what will create the least amount of work.
"I feel very strongly about it," Hughes told the Phoenix. "I realize that it's a tough vote because it sounds like you're coddling criminals, and that it may create some paperwork and inconvenience for the Justice Department, but we're talking about basic justice here.
On June 6 Hughes joined with three other Democratic House members of the conference committee- and two conservative Republicans, Henry Hyde, of Illinois, and Bill McCollum, of Florida – in writing a letter to Attorney General Reno urging retention of the retroactive safety valve "to ensure that our limited and costly prison space is not taken up by low-level non-violent drug offenders with no significant criminal history who do not belong there."
Less than a year ago, Reno spoke forcefully of the need to clear the jails of non-violent offenders. ("Mothers in Law," News, January 7). They take up costly prison cells that are better used for the truly dangerous offenders," Reno said. Her goal with violent criminals, she added, was "to incapacitate them, to get them off and away from the streets."
But the White House has spoken, and Reno has gotten with the program.
"Jane Reno was on our side in the beginning. But she seems to have switched sides," laments Domenica Piscitelli, director of the Massachusetts chapter of FAMM. "I think she's taking orders. Her hands are tied."
In Kennedy's Court
With the Clinton administration doing all it can to scuttle the retroactive part of the safety valve, and with Reno and Biden in retreat from their own principles, the gauntlet has thus been thrown into Ted Kennedy's court. As the senior Democrat on the conference committee – if he chooses to use it – to restore the retroactive provision.
A majority of House members on the conference committee have already written to Reno expressing their support. Kennedy is the one Democratic senator on the committee with enough clout to stand up to Biden, and to lead the way for the other senators who are already on record in favor of the provision.
"There's review now and discussion with regards to what they call the mules, those that are virtually first-time non-violent individuals who are involved in some aspect of the drug trade but are not violent," Kennedy explains.
Kennedy says he'll also work to restrict the three-strikes provision so that non-violent drug offenders don't end up serving life without parole. "The definitions are going to be adjusted so it has to be violent crime," he adds. "That was not defined in the Senate version."