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Fixing the Armed Career Criminal Act

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In Johnson v. United States (2015), the Supreme Court declared the "residual clause" of the Armed Career Criminal Act void for vagueness. That clause was part of the definition of which prior crimes would count for a designation as a career criminal with substantially stiffer sentences. The clause was not a masterpiece of statutory drafting, but its loss has had serious consequences, and Congress needs to step up to the plate and fix it. Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Cotton have done just that, introducing the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act. Their "one-pager" is here.

The case of Jerrod Baum is illustrative of the types of criminals sentenced under the ACCA and the tragic consequences that flowed from Johnson. In 1991, Baum, a neo-Nazi in Utah, allegedly went into a fast food restaurant and fired at employees while trying to rob it. He was charged with numerous felonies, including attempted murder, and took a plea deal. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault against a prison guard. In 2003, he was convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon. In 2005, he was again convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon, and sentenced under the ACCA to remain prison until at least 2020.

The retroactive release of violent career offenders after Johnson allowed Baum to leave prison early in 2016. In 2018, Baum was arrested and charged for allegedly kidnapping, stabbing, and disposing the bodies of two teenagers in Eureka, Utah, by throwing them down a mineshaft. But for the Johnson decision, Baum would have remained in prison and the two teenagers he allegedly murdered would almost certainly be alive.
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The Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act would do away with the concepts of "violent felony" and "serious drug offense" and replace them with a single category of "serious felony." A serious felony would be any crime punishable by 10 years or more.

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