Federal sentencing reform can reduce prison crowding and save money

In recent weeks, officials from Massachusetts to Nebraska have called for mandatory minimum sentencing reform in order to reduce the hundreds of thousands of inmates deluging the criminal justice system. Yet while state-based reform is slowly enacted, 200,000 inmates remain behind bars in overcrowded federal prisons costing millions of dollars each day. Fortunately, one proposed law may change that: the Smarter Sentencing Act.

Today, the average federal prison is overcrowded by 36 percent. In 2013, the total federal prison system had a capacity rated to hold 132,221 inmates, yet there were 176,484 inmates behind federal bars that year. In some correctional institutions, the inmate population has been 50 percent over the rated capacity.

{mosads}The reason for this overcrowding is in part due to drug laws, and more specifically, mandatory minimum sentencing laws. While initially intended to deter drug use with harsh sentences, mandatory minimums have instead led to a surge of non-violent drug offenders locked in federal penitentiaries without any possibility to negotiate their sentencing.

Drug offenders are now given prison time as part of their sentences at much higher rates than prior to 1986, when Congress established mandatory minimum drug sentences. Moreover, the length of time drug offenders spend in prison has largely increased — drug offenders in federal prison in 2013 were facing an average sentence of 11 years (at a cost of $79 per day for each inmate).

In 2013, more people were admitted to federal prison under drug charges than for any other crime. In fact, nearly half of all current federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes. A main reason for this is because mandatory minimums result in more guilty convictions by shifting discretion from judges to prosecutors. On top of this, drug laws are filled with disparities that result in inordinate convictions.

Take, for example, the sentencing established for drug offenders found guilty of cocaine possession. While the only difference between crack and powdered cocaine is a bit of baking soda and the method of ingestion, the Controlled Substances Act mandates a minimum five-year

sentence for the possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine, whereas 500 grams of powdered cocaine is needed for the same sentence to be imposed. Prior to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, this sentencing ratio was 100-to-one.

Not only is there a disparity in cocaine sentencing, there is also a discrepancy in arrests. A recent study by researchers at New York University found that crack cocaine users, who tend to be of lower socioeconomic status than powdered cocaine users, are at a much “higher risk” of arrest. What’s most troubling is that three-quarters fewer people use crack cocaine compared to powdered cocaine.

While reducing the discrepancy in arrests is clearly a law enforcement issue, resolving the sentencing disparity which has contributed to prison overcrowding can be easily achieved by amending drug laws with legislation that is currently under consideration.

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 would cut in half most of the non-violent mandatory minimums for drugs, resulting in fewer people in prison for a fewer number of years. Moreover, it would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive so that 8,829 drug offenders would be eligible for resentencing. Overall, the bill would save 224,887 federal prison beds by 2023.

Further, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by Firedoglake, the Department of Justice last year estimated that the Smarter Sentencing Act, if passed, would save $24 billion over 20 years.

However, if mandatory minimum sentencing reform is not passed, and the prison population continues to rise as expected, the federal government will need to build 16 more prisons at $350 million each in order to maintain the 36 percent overcrowding rate through 2023.

It’s clear that mandatory minimums contribute to overcrowding the justice system and they are inordinately expensive, but the Smarter Sentencing Act has the potential to bring considerable benefits almost immediately. Nearly two-thirds of Americans feel that a move away from mandatory minimums is a smart decision. It’s clear that the time has come for legislation aimed at reforming these laws to be passed.

Gargano is the editorial assistant at Young Voices, a policy project of the international nonprofit Students For Liberty.


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