Washington, D.C. – With federal prison populations skyrocketing and nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, to modernize our drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent offenses. Making these incremental and targeted changes could save taxpayers billions in the first years of enactment.
“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”
“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said. “By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”
The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, in large part due to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster deep distrust of the criminal justice system.
This large increase in prison populations has also put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts inmates and guards at risk. There is more than 50 percent overcrowding at high-security facilities. This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing inmates. It currently costs nearly $30,000 to house just one federal inmate for a year. There are currently more than 219,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half of them serving sentences for drug offenses.
The bipartisan Durbin-Lee-Leahy bill is an incremental approach that does not abolish any mandatory sentences. Rather, it takes a studied and modest step in modernizing drug sentencing policy by:
- Modestly expanding the existing federal “safety valve”: Our legislative “safety valve” has been effective in allowing federal judges to appropriately sentence certain non-violent drug offenders below existing mandatory minimums. This safety valve, however, only applies to a narrow subset of cases. The Smarter Sentencing Act would modestly broaden criteria for eligibility. This change, which only applies to certain non-violent drug offenses, is supported by nearly 70 percent of federal district court judges.
- Promoting sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act: The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which was authored by Senator Durbin and unanimously passed the Senate before it was signed into law – reduced a decades-long sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Unfortunately, because of the timing of their sentences, some individuals are still serving far-too-lengthy sentences that Congress has already determined are unjust and racially disparate. The Smarter Sentencing Act allows certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law. Federal courts successfully and efficiently conducted similar crack-related sentence reductions after 2007 and 2011 changes to the Sentencing Guidelines. This provision alone could save taxpayers more than $1 billion. More information on the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 can be found here.
- Increasing individualized review for certain drug sentences: The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply. The Act does not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences and does not lower the maximum sentences for these offenses. This approach keeps intact a floor at which all offenders with the same drug-related offense will be held accountable but reserves the option to dole out the harshest penalties where circumstances warrant. These changes do not apply to penalties for violent offenses.
The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the Sentencing Project, Open Society Policy Center, the American Bar Association, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Constitution Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Brennan Center for Justice, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.