Hours after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined Utah’s top federal prosecutor in calling on Congress to repair a law meant to keep violent career criminals locked up — pointing to the recent deaths of two teens in Utah County as evidence — one of Utah’s senators introduced a bill to do just that.
Sessions, speaking in Little Rock on Wednesday, said a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that cut part of the Armed Career Criminal Act for being too vague has been “devastating for Americans across the country," and said law enforcement is missing a crucial tool.
The Armed Career Criminal Act affects defendants who have been convicted of three designated types of felonies if, on a fourth conviction, they are charged with having a gun. The law mandates that person can be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
After the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that a clause in the law, a catch-all defining what types of felonies are considered violent, was unconstitutionally vague, many inmates petitioned for release. Nationally, Sessions said, 1,400 inmates have been let go.
In Utah, 211 inmates filed for shortened sentences between January 2015 and January 2018, according to data provided to The Salt Lake Tribune by Utah’s U.S. Attorney’s office. Of those, 30 were successful.
Soon after Sessions' remarks, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, both Republicans, announced legislation to address the issue: The Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act.
“Criminals released early from prison as a result of that decision have gone on to commit heinous crimes, including the murder of three innocent Utahns. Our bill will bring much-needed clarity to the law while empowering prosecutors to pursue justice,” Hatch said in a statement.
A spokesman for Hatch said the senators had been working on the legislation for weeks.
Across the country, Sessions said about 42 percent of inmates who’ve been released early have committed new crimes.
“These are not the mythical ‘low-level, nonviolent drug offenders,’ who we are always told are being excessively imprisoned. These are criminals who have already committed multiple serious offenses and then were caught with a gun,” Sessions said.
To make his point, the attorney general cited an Arkansas case where a man, who got his sentenced shortened because of the ruling, went on to assault a co-worker, breaking his nose and eye sockets. In another case, Sessions said, a man was released who later allegedly raped a 62-year-old woman and an autistic homeless man.
He also pointed to the deaths of Otteson and Powell.
“In Utah, a career criminal released by this decision tortured and murdered two teenagers and then threw their bodies down a mineshaft,” Sessions said.
Baum, who court records show has a lengthy criminal history, was released from prison in July 2016, after successfully arguing his previous convictions for rioting and aggravated assault didn’t qualify under the amended career criminal act.
Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber, who spoke with The Tribune about the issue in July, also identified Baum’s case as a consequence of the Supreme Court decision and called for Congress to fix the law so he can keep “the worst of the worst” incarcerated.
Abe Martinez, who escaped an Arizona halfway house in mid-June and came to Utah, where he killed his grandmother, Rose, and injured his step-grandfather before being fatally shot by police, also had his sentenced lessened because of the ruling, Huber said.
Melodie Rydalch, Huber’s spokeswoman, said Utah’s U.S. attorney has been working with the Justice Department to address the issue and has spoken to Sessions about it.
“We think any attention that can be focused on a legislative fix to the Armed Career Criminal Act is a good thing for Utah and the country,” Rydalch said.
Hatch’s proposed legislation would replace the part of the act that references applicable violent felonies and serious drug offenses with a single category: serious felony.
A serious felony would be any crime punishable by 10 or more years behind bars, which the senators believe would address the court’s vagueness issue.
Former U.S. Attorney (and Huber’s old boss) Brett Tolman, previously told The Tribune that he doesn’t think longer sentences is the right way to stop career criminals, arguing that both Baum and Martinez spent more than a decade in prison, despite the amended law, and still went on to re-offend.
Instead, Tolman said prosecutors should focus on criminal justice reform and enacting programs aimed at reducing recidivism and rehabilitating felons.
When asked about Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s opinion on legislation to address the issue with the career criminal act, his spokesman said the senator agrees it is a problem and is working on a “a workable solution.” He declined to elaborate.
Requests for comment to the rest of Utah’s federal delegation were not immediately returned.