The United States currently has the world’s highest incarceration rate. One of the main contributors to this recognition is the country’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses. Mandatory minimum sentences are inflexible binding prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of a particular crime. Unfortunately, these sentences that were originally created as a “one-size-fits-all” solution for sentencing disparities are now coming up short of expectation. Recently, there has been a growing recognition that this approach has not worked for reasons of both fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons. As a result of this recognition, many people are trying to take action to fix this.
In mid-December, two bills had a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The first bill, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act, was introduced by Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin and Senator Mike Lee as a modernized sentencing tool that gives judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted non-violent offenses. Although the Smarter Sentencing Act does not abolish mandatory sentences, it does offer many opportunities to modernize the current system. Some of those opportunities include expanding the existing federal “safety valve,” promoting sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, and increasing individualized review for certain drug sentences.
The second bill, The Justice Safety Valve Act, would authorize judges to use their discretion and sentence federal offenders below mandatory minimum sentences. Judges will have the ability to lessen sentences only if they determine doing so would not jeopardize public safety. This bill was introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Rand Paul in a hope to lessen the population of the federal prisons.
Supporters of this reform say that mandatory minimum sentences are outdated, rob judges of their ability to use their own discretion, and are very costly. The financial element of this possible reform is an important consideration from all sides. From the one side, the Justice Department is spending approximately $6.4 billion on prisons each year. Then on the other side, hitting closer to home for the average citizen, a recent report found that taxpayers would save at least $1.784 billion if life sentences were eliminated for nonviolent offenses.
The mandatory minimum sentences are no longer acting as a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Instead, these sentences are causing more problems and have members in both parties talking about possible resolutions.
Sources: The Boston Globe, Sentencing laws draw attention in Congress, Henry C. Jackson, January 12, 2014