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Public Statements

Secure Access to Justice and Court Protection Act of 2005

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


SECURE ACCESS TO JUSTICE AND COURT PROTECTION ACT OF 2005 -- (House of Representatives - November 09, 2005)

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Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself such time as I might consume.

It is, I think, a very clear statement to make that we have faced extensive violence in our courts in recent times. The problem of violence and threats against judges, court officials, employees, witnesses, and victims is not a new one, but one that is growing rapidly.

Recent events, including the killing of a Fulton County judge and other court personnel in Atlanta, the murders of United States district judge Joan Lefkow's family members outside Chicago, Illinois, and the murders immediately outside the Tyler, Texas, courthouse have underscored the increasing significance of the problem.

According to the Administrative Office of United States Courts, there are almost 700 threats a year made against Federal judges; and in numerous cases, Federal judges have had security details assigned to them for fear of attack by members of violent gangs, drug organizations and disgruntled litigants.

With such tragic incidents, Mr. Chairman, we are in collaboration, if you will, on H.R. 1751, at least the premise, the Secure Access to Justice and Court Protection Act of 2005.

I commend the gentleman from Michigan (Mr. Conyers), the ranking member, and the gentleman from Wisconsin (Mr. Sensenbrenner), the chairman, for their collaborative efforts, and the gentleman from Texas (Mr. Gohmert), my colleague, a former judge, and I guess one would say once a judge always a judge, who has taken the leadership on this issue.

None of us would step away from the purpose and the necessity of this legislation. In fact, I am very gratified to have secured an amendment that will allow State courts to establish a threat assessment database similar to that of the U.S. Marshals where they will be able to determine the threat status or situation against a respective court, and then, of course, to hopefully have an amendment that would pass that would provide grants to the highest State courts to be able to disseminate those moneys to create that database and that threat assessment database.

In addition, I would say that this hard work and commitment of Democratic members on the committee have also now provided for offers of grants to State courts so they can make meaningful enhancements to courtroom safety and security.

It provides the U.S. Marshal Service with an additional $100 million over the course of the next 5 years to increase ongoing investigations and expand the protective services it currently offers to members of the Federal judiciary.

It authorizes the Attorney General to establish a grant program for States to establish threat assessment databases.

Even with these valuable improvements, however, the bill still suffers from a number of fatal flaws, specifically its inclusion of 16 mandatory minimum sentences and its establishment of one new death-penalty-eligible offense.

Let me comment briefly on those mandatory sentences. Mandatory minimum penalties have been studied extensively; and the vast majority of available research clearly indicates that they do not, in many instances, work. Among many other things, they have been shown to distort the sentencing process to discriminate against minorities in their application and to waste valuable taxpayer money.

But the real emphasis is, although we are here today to protect our court systems and our court officials and our law enforcement officials, we are also here to recognize the discretion necessary for our courts; and in many instances, the judicial conference itself has indicated its desire to have more discretion in sentencing.

The Judicial Conference of the United States would see the impact of mandatory minimum sentences on individual cases, as well as on the criminal justice system as a whole, and has expressed its deep opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing over a dozen times to Congress, noting that these sentences severely distort and damage the Federal sentencing system. Yes, we must have deterrence, and I have supported enhancements of penalties, adding more time for individuals to serve; but at the same time, we must allow the courts to make that determination.

If heinous acts against our Federal courts have been perpetrated, then that judge hearing that particular case would then have the discretion to yield or to render, along with a jury and a jury trial, the highest sentence; but the mandatory minimum would not be there in place of a judge's discretion.

As I was saying, the Federal sentencing system, the Judicial Conference has said, and the mandatory sentencing undermine the sentencing guideline regimen established by Congress to promote fairness and proportionality and destroy honesty in sentencing by encouraging charge and fact plea bargains.

In fact, in a recent letter to members of the Crime Subcommittee regarding H.R. 1279, the Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005, the conference noted that mandatory minimum sentences create the opposite of their intended effect. Far from fostering certainty in punishment, mandatory minimums result in unwarranted sentencing disparity, and mandatory minimums treat dissimilar offenders in a similar manner, although those offenders can be quite different with respect to the seriousness of their conduct or their danger to society.

So I would suggest that we are united around the necessity of this legislation. We must protect our courts and those officials. I might add that I hope that we will have further discussion about lawyers who are engaged in the practice of law in cases where they come under particular threats, whether it is in particular the prosecutor who is covered by this or defense lawyers and other lawyers who engage in cases which generate threats against their lives. We might consider hearings that would discuss that propensity.

I might also say that the inconsistent and arbitrary nature of mandatory minimum sentences is made readily apparent by a quick analysis of section 2 of the bill. Section 2 establishes a 1-year mandatory minimum with 10-year maximum criminal penalty for assaulting the immediate family member of a law enforcement officer or judge, if the assault results in bodily injury. However, just a few lines later in the same section, an identical criminal penalty is established for a simple threat.

So, Mr. Chairman, I think it is important that as we support this legislation that we also take note of some of the inconsistencies that might warrant consideration as this bill makes its way through the House, through the Senate and, of course, conference.

On the issue of the death penalty, let me suggest these few thoughts. In creating a new death-penalty-eligible offense for anyone convicted of killing a federally funded public safety officer, there is no disagreement in the value of our public safety officer. It is just whether or not in addition to such an offense of death penalty, whether or not a substitute of life imprisonment without parole could have equally been used. Expansion of the use of the Federal death penalty in the current environment seems to warrant consideration.

The public is clearly rethinking the appropriateness of the death penalty in general due to the evidence that it is ineffective in deterring crime and is racially discriminatory and is more often than not found to be erroneously applied.

I know that for a fact in a recent case we had in Texas, Frances Newton, a young woman accused of killing her children and her husband, a horrific and heinous crime, certainly one would suggest that she warrants the ultimate penalty. However, unfortunately, in petitioning to get a new trial on the basis of real definitive new evidence, the courts would not consider such; and, of course, Frances Newton has gone to her death. I believe that she has gone to her death with raising the question of whether or not she was, in fact, innocent or guilty.

In a 23-year comprehensive study of death penalties, 68 percent were found to be erroneously applied. So it is not surprising that 119 people sentenced to death for murder over the past 12 years been completely exonerated of those crimes.

This is a good bill. It would have been even better if we had considered life without parole and considered the viability or the necessity of creating a new eligibility for the death penalty.

I would ask my colleagues to consider this legislation.

[Begin Insert]

Let me begin by saying that I strongly support the need to protect judges and court officials from threats and violence. Despite this fact, I do have major concerns with this bill. For example, H.R. 1751 proposes to add 16 new mandatory minimum sentences to the current criminal code. Mandatory minimum penalties have been studied extensively and the vast majority of available research clearly indicates that they do not work. Among other things, they have been shown to distort the sentencing process, to discriminate against minorities in their application, and to waste valuable taxpayer money.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, which sees the impact of mandatory minimum sentences on individual cases as well as on the criminal justice system as a whole, has expressed its deep opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing over a dozen times to Congress, noting that these sentences ``severely distort and damage the Federal sentencing system ..... undermine the Sentencing Guideline regimen'' established by Congress to promote fairness and proportionality, and ``destroy honesty in sentencing by encouraging charge and fact plea bargains.''

In fact, in a recent letter to Members of the Crime Subcommittee regarding H.R. 1279, the ``Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005,'' the Conference noted that mandatory minimum sentences create ``the opposite of their intended effect.''

Far from fostering certainty in punishment, mandatory minimums result in unwarranted sentencing disparity. Mandatory minimums treat dissimilar offenders in a similar manner, although those offenders can be quite different with respect to the seriousness of their conduct or their danger to society.

The inconsistent and arbitrary nature of mandatory minimum sentences is made readily apparent by a quick analysis of section 2 of the bill. Section 2 establishes a one year mandatory minimum (with a 10 year maximum criminal penalty) for assaulting the immediate family member of a law enforcement officer or judge--if the assault results in bodily injury. However, just a few lines later in the same section, an identical criminal penalty is established for a simple threat. Thus, the same section of the bill makes two completely different actions, with considerably varying outcomes, subject to the same term of imprisonment.

Furthermore, H.R. 1751 unwisely creates a new death penalty eligible offense for anyone convicted of killing a federally funded public safety officer. Expansion of the use of the federal death penalty in the current environment is patently unwarranted. The public is clearly rethinking the appropriateness of the death penalty, in general, due to the evidence that it is ineffective in deterring crime, is racially discriminatory, and is more often than not found to be erroneously applied. In a 23-year comprehensive study of death penalties, 68 percent were found to be erroneously applied. So, it is not surprising that 119 people sentenced to death for murder over the past 12 years have been completely exonerated of those crimes. Nor is it surprising with that such a lackluster record of death penalty administrations that several states have abolished the death penalty. For example, Connecticut has not executed anyone in 45 years.

Without a doubt, the increasing numbers of innocent people released from death row illustrates the fallibility of the current system. Last year, a University of Michigan study identified 199 murder exonerations since 1989, 73 of them in capital cases. Moreover, the same study found that death row inmates represent a quarter of 1 percent of the prison population but 22 percent of the exonerated.

[End Insert]

Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.

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Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself 1 minute.

Let me simply say that I think we will continue to have discussions as relates to mandatory minimums. I think this bill has great purpose; I think it is important, however, for us to raise those issues.

I will conclude by saying that we have a long way to go in the criminal justice system, and I hope that we will also bring to the floor of the House this whole issue of early release for those who are languishing in prisons. I hope the Good Time Early Release bill for nonviolent prisoners in our Federal prisons who are over 40 years old will have an opportunity for full debate, because they all go hand-in-hand.

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AMENDMENT NO. 4 OFFERED BY MR. CUELLAR

Mr. CUELLAR. Mr. Chairman, I offer an amendment.

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Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas. Mr. Chairman, will the gentleman yield?

Mr. CUELLAR. I yield to the gentlewoman from Texas.

Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas. Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman for his very wise amendment. He comes from a region that has suffered an enormous amount of border violence. But his local officials, in working with the gentleman, has brought this to the Nation's attention.

This amendment will protect witnesses who I think are the crux of solving some of these heinous crimes. I have supported amendments such as this, which include language in legislation that I have which deals with rewarding informants in order to get them to tell the facts that would allow for busting drug cartels and others who are perpetrating violence. This is a wise amendment, and I am happy to support it.

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AMENDMENT NO. 5 OFFERED BY MS. JACKSON-LEE OF TEXAS

Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas. Mr. Chairman, I offer an amendment.

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Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

I want to thank the ranking member and the chairman of the full committee and the chairman and the ranking member of the subcommittee to allow the amendment that I secured that has to do with providing courts the opportunity to establish a threat assessment database similar to that of U.S. Marshals.

This provides our courts hands-on immediate information in order to determine the threats that are waged against these particular courts. This simple amendment, rather than include the attorney, in essence, the change of this amendment would require the Attorney General to work through the Office of Justice Programs to make grants to the highest State courts in States participating in the Threat Assessment Database program.

Mr. SENSENBRENNER. Mr. Chairman, will the gentlewoman yield?

Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas. I yield to the gentleman from Wisconsin.

Mr. SENSENBRENNER. Mr. Chairman, I support this amendment. It makes a technical change to section 25 of the bill, and it broadens the eligibility for grants. I think it is a good amendment and urge the committee to adopt it.

Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas. Mr. Chairman, reclaiming my time, I thank the distinguished chairman for his support.

Let me conclude by simply saying again I remind colleagues I hope that some day we will be able to discuss the Good Time Early Relief bill that speaks to the question of individuals languishing in Federal prisons who have been nonviolent and would welcome this discussion and this legislation.

I am grateful for this amendment, and I ask my colleagues to support the amendment.

[Begin Insert]

Mr. Chairman, I rise to offer an amendment to H.R. 1751, the Secure Access to Justice and Court Protection Act of 2005. Before doing so, I want to thank the Chairman and the Ranking Minority Member of the House Judiciary Committee for their efforts on this bill. Let me briefly explain the thrust of my amendment. This amendment is only a small technical change to my original amendment that was adopted during the Full Committee Markup last week. In essence, the change would require the Attorney General to work, through the Office of Justice Programs, to make grants to the highest State courts in States participating in the threat assessment database program.

The rationale for changing the language to make State Supreme Courts eligible for receiving grants for the creation of a threat assessment database is that the State courts are on the ground and have the best understanding of what type of threats are out there and where they are coming from. In addition:

The Department of Justice has interpreted language giving ``grants to States'' as going directly to State executives (Governors) and they have sometimes bypassed the State courts.

The State court administrating agencies (led by the State supreme courts) are in a better position to know about the kind of threats and attacks they experience in a given year.

The State court administrating agencies are in a better position to know how to respond to attacks and develop procedures to counter threats to the State courts.

If the grants go to the State executive, there is a chance that money expended under this program will go to another part of the State budget such as roads or education, not court security.

I respectfully request that my amendment be made in order.

[End Insert]

Mr. Chairman, I yield back the balance of my time.

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