Congress Eyes Action on Overhauling Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

Post Date: November 12, 2013

capitolfall(Mint Press News) — The growing interest in legislative action already constitutes a sea change in the United States’ decades-old “tough on crime” approach, and would include dialing down on long-criticized mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for a range of nonviolent crimes. Most importantly, several new and pending proposals have garnered widespread support from across the political spectrum, leading many observers to expect some sort of legislative action on a major policy issue – needless to say, a rarity in today’s polarized Congress.

“The main drivers of prison growth are front-end sentencing laws enacted by Congress, like the proliferation of mandatory minimum sentences,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, stated on Wednesday at a hearing on reducing costs at the Bureau of Prisons, the second such hearing in two months.

“I am committed to addressing sentencing reform this year, as I know other senators are from both sides of the aisle. It is a problem that Congress created and it is time that we fix it. Public safety demands it.”

U.S. federal prison populations have grown by almost 800 percent over the past three decades, largely as a result of mandatory minimum sentencing, particularly for nonviolent drug crimes. Also on Wednesday, Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels reported that the federal prisons system is currently operating at 140 percent of capacity, setting up a dangerous system for guards, prisoners and society at large. (An infographic detailing the situation was released this week by Boston University.)

Furthermore, just housing these prisoners now accounts for a quarter of the Bureau of Prison’s budget every year. This budgetary consideration has been central in gathering together the significant bipartisan support for a potential overhaul of how the country decides whether, and for how long, to incarcerate low-level criminals.

Leahy’s remarks come just after the House of Representatives saw the introduction of a key legislative proposal called the Smarter Sentencing Act. Identical legislation was introduced in the Senate in July (one of its sponsors is Leahy himself), underlining the seriousness with which proponents are approaching what has now become a major initiative.

Including some 219,000 federal-level inmates – a number official researchers earlier this year called “historically unprecedented” – the United States currently holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The most significant provisions in the Smarter Sentencing Act would target nonviolent drug offenders, which make up more than 40 percent of the federally incarcerated population.

First, the bill would make retroactive unanimously passed legislation from 2010 that reduced the mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine, which would benefit an estimated 8,800 people across the country. Second, the proposal would reduce federal drug-related mandatory minimums across the board to around half the currently required time. And third, a related bill would loosen criminal history requirements for drug offenders allowed to slip in under mandatory minimums (known as the “safety valve”).

“What’s so exciting is that we’re at this point of history where the same conversations are now taking place in both the House and Senate,” Molly Gill, government affairs counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), an advocacy group, told Mint Press News. Read more