5 GOP Senators Move to Restore Sentencing Tool for Repeat Offenders

May 21, 2019 Updated: May 21, 2019

WASHINGTON—Violent repeat offenders who illegally use firearms to commit new felonies will again face the prospect of a minimum of 15 years in prison if a bill introduced on May 20 by five Republican senators becomes law.

“Violent, repeat criminals should be behind bars, not roaming the streets threatening law-abiding citizens. The ‘Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act (RACCA)’ will give back federal prosecutors the tool they need to lock up hardened, repeat offenders,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in a statement.

Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Josh Hawley of Missouri, David Perdue of Georgia, and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina are co-sponsors of RACCA with Cotton.

A companion version of the measure was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.).

The National Sheriffs Association (NSA) and the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) released statements backing the RACCA, in conjunction with the senators’ announcement of the bill’s introduction in Congress.

The bill is in response to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision—Johnson v. United States—that found unconstitutionally vague a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 that required a minimum 15 years in prison for those convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm and who had three prior violent felonies committed on three separate occasions.

The violent felonies included those “that constitute crimes similar to burglary, arson, or extortion under what is known as the ACCA’s ‘residual clause’ (any crime that ‘otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another’),” the senators said in the statement. It was the residual clause that the high court ruled unconstitutionally vague.

The Johnson decision resulted in the early release of thousands of violent criminals who then committed new crimes, the senators said.

As an example, Cotton pointed to Cornelius Spencer, a gang member convicted of nine felonies, including drug trafficking, aggravated assault, and robbery, who was released in 2016, five years before completing his 15-year sentence.

“Last year, he was charged with raping two homeless Arkansans, a 62-year-old woman and a 21-year-old autistic man. These crimes would’ve never happened if Spencer hadn’t been prematurely released,” Cotton said.

The RACCA replaces the 1984 law’s provisions concerning “violent felony” and “serious drug offense” with the single category of a “serious felony,” which is defined as any crime for which the penalty upon conviction is 10 or more years in prison.

As a result, the 15-year minimum sentence would “still apply only in a case where a felon who possesses a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g) has previously been convicted three times of serious felonies, which must have been committed on different occasions.”

Hawley, a former Missouri attorney general, said “when prosecutors lack the tools to take repeat offenders off the streets, more crimes are committed and all of us are less safe. This bill sends the message that, if you commit multiple serious felonies and carry a gun illegally, you’ll be spending the next 15 years in prison.”

“When the Supreme Court effectively voided the ACCA … it took away an important tool that law enforcement used to get the worst career criminals off our streets,” said NAPO Executive Director William J. Johnson in a letter released by the senators.

“The Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act will fix the ACCA by using a specific definition for ‘serious felony’ and restore the Act, thus giving prosecutors and law enforcement back a significant resource in the fight against violent crime,” Johnson said.

The measure introduced on May 20 is identical to one Cotton co-sponsored in 2018 with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in the Senate and Kustoff in the House.

Former Attorney General William Sessions was among the most prominent critics of the court’s Johnson decision. He told an Aug. 1, 2018, Little Rock, Arkansas, meeting of law enforcement officials that the decision had caused “a nationwide problem and it’s a cause for deep concern.”

Because of the decision, Sessions said, “in Utah, a career criminal released by this decision tortured and murdered two teenagers and then threw their bodies down a mineshaft.”

“A released career criminal in California allegedly murdered his father, carjacked a vehicle and killed the driver. And in Oregon, a released career criminal held a Subway sandwich shop hostage and then shot a police officer just 18 days after he was released.”

Sessions added that “this is no little matter. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that nearly seven out of 10 career criminals reoffended after being released.”

“Federal firearms offenders were found to be the most likely to be rearrested of any category. These criminals are both. They are career criminals and firearms offenders.”

Sessions said 1,400 repeat offenders were released due to the Johnson decision.