August 28, 2015
Congress is taking on criminal justice reform with zeal. There are approximately 94 bills pending in the House and Senate that deal specifically with sentencing reform. The newly reform-minded Congress is no surprise.
The spate of police shootings, the media hype over DNA exonerations and the growing support for legalized marijuana have seemed to generate the sympathy of the media, if not the public at large.
There is also movement among conservative lawmakers to reduce the costs of incarceration. Those costs are substantial and growing. In the last 30 years, federal prisons have grown by a whopping 500 percent and the resulting growth has increased costs by 1,100 percent. The federal prison budget hovers at about $6.9 billion.
Half of the 207,000 federal inmates are in prison as a result of drug crimes; and 20 percent of the overall prison expenditure is spent on inmates 50 years old and above.
Some of the pending legislation in Congress promising to lower prison costs includes the Federal Prison Bureau Relief Act of 2015 which suggests providing alternative release dates for nonviolent offenders; the Police Camera Act seeking to eliminate sentencing disparities; the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act of 2015 proposing to reduce certain cocaine sentences retroactively and the Prisoner Incentive Act of 2015 which seeks to give inmates more credit for “good time” in prison.
However, there are a couple pieces of legislation that merit a closer look. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have come together with Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) who introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA). The act seeks to reduce the ballooning federal prison population.
The SSA takes on mandatory minimum sentences. The proposal seeks to reduce some mandatory minimums without removing all.
“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” said Lee, as quoted on the Brenner Center website “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manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing policies.”
The SSA hopes to expand the sentencing “safety valve” which allows a judge to part from mandatory minimum sentencing laws if certain conditions are met. This change is supported by over 60 percent of federal district court judges, many of whom object to mandatory minimum sentences.
The SSA would also institute retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 for those sentenced under old crack and powder cocaine laws.
The SSA would also eliminate some mandatory drug sentences, allowing judges to determine the appropriate sentence. According to the Brenner Center, most individuals currently serving time for federal drug crimes receive penalties with a five or 10 year mandatory minimum, the bill would cut these penalties in half.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Smarter Sentencing Act could save the Department of Justice about $4 billion from 2015-2024.
Another piece of federal legislation worth another look is the Redeem Act introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) which aims to keep juveniles out of the adult criminal justice system and incentivizes states to make it easier for formerly incarcerated adults to have their criminal records sealed, reported the Huffington Post.
All of this legislation applies to federal sentencing, prisons and inmates. The problem goes far beyond the federal government. Currently, more than 86 percent of prisoners in the United States are in state and local facilities, not federal prisons. There are a great deal of reform measures being proposed and implemented in states nationwide. The result is a mixed bag and a story for another day.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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