New crime bill could give more discretion to federal judges, Chattanooga attorneys say

U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. speaks after the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at Red Bank High School on Tuesday, Sept. 19.

Some Chattanooga attorneys say an expansive criminal justice effort that hangs in the balance in Washington would give judges more discretion to decide punishments in federal drug cases that carry stiff, mandatory sentences.

Though news reports Friday said the reforms, backed by President Donald Trump, may not be passed in this legislative session, the bipartisan effort aims to increase vocational training, education, counseling and substance abuse treatment for inmates in the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The reforms would allow thousands of federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty; lower mandatory minimums that have been in place since 1994 for some drug offenses; and reduce the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or "three strikes," to 25 years.

Many of these reforms would not apply retroactively, but only to people with pending appeals or current charges. And news reports say roughly 90 percent of prison inmates are held in state facilities and would not be affected by the legislation. Still, some Chattanooga attorneys say, one of the biggest changes is federal judges would have greater latitude to consider lower-than-mandated sentences for people with minimal prior criminal history who are facing drug charges.

"It looks like it's going to give the judges more discretion back to give people lower sentences when appropriate, which Congress prevented them from doing with certain mandatory minimums with its crime bill in 1994," said Chattanooga defense attorney Jonathan Turner. "That's a big deal."

The federal sentencing system is more complex and severe than what exists in Tennessee's state courts.

For instance, if you're convicted of a felony in state court and law enforcement finds you later on with a firearm, that's a mandatory minimum punishment of five years in federal court. The federal system, which houses roughly 181,000 people, doesn't have parole, either, meaning people generally serve 85 percent of their sentences. For comparison, in state court, people who are eligible for the lowest range of punishment could be paroled after serving 33 percent of their time.

In a normal scenario, a judge's hands are tied: They're bound to uphold the laws that the legislature writes. That pressure applies even more to federal judges, who have to impose the mandatory minimums set by Congress that accompany many federal gun and drug laws.

Laws have been changing in recent years to give federal judges more discretion, said Chattanooga attorney Lee Davis. But it's still not uncommon to see large sentences anywhere between 200 and 300 months for federal drug trafficking convictions.

Harry "Sandy" Mattice, a U.S. District Court judge in Chattanooga, said there's a natural tension between wanting to deter people from committing crimes with stiff punishments and finding a punishment that fits the individual case at hand. But changing the law is a two-way street: After the legislature creates laws, high courts can determine, through certain cases, that parts of them are unconstitutional or require tweaking. Mattice cited the U.S. Supreme Court's string of recent decisions declaring parts of the Career Armed Criminal Act from 1984 unconstitutional.

"Like all judges, I have seen a case in which I wish I had more discretion to address the individual nature and circumstances o the offense and the defendant before me, but I've never doubted the discretion of the legislature," Mattice said. "What it does take away is the ability of the judge to consider all the unique factors and sentence accordingly, but you can argue which [approach] is better forever."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter@zackpeterson918.