Feds to Reconsider Harsh Prison Terms for Drug Offenders

Post Date: April 9, 2014

(PBS Frontline) — The federal prison population has expanded by nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years, spurred in part by the increasing use of tougher sentences applied to nonviolent drug crimes.

Now there’s a growing movement to scale it back. On Thursday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency, plans to vote on an amendment to sentencing guidelines that could ultimately begin to winnow the federal prison population, nearly half of whom are people convicted of drug offenses.

The amendment is part of a bipartisan push away from America’s addiction to incarceration, which prison reform experts say costs far too much, not only in dollars — $80 billion a year in 2010 — but also in the devastation primarily of African-American communities, who have been disproportionately caught up in the system.

The commission’s proposal would lower the sentencing guideline levels for drug-trafficking offenses, allowing judges to impose reduced sentences by about 11 months, on average, for these crimes. The guidelines are the range between which a judge can sentence an offender. Currently, those guidelines are set higher even than mandatory minimum sentences — the lowest possible sentence a judge could impose —  to give prosecutors bargaining power. The amendment would set the upper and lower guideline limits around the mandatory minimums, leading to lower sentences for nearly 70 percent of drug-trafficking offenders, the commission said.

If it passes, the amendment would take effect Nov. 1 and reduce the federal population by 3 percent over the next five years. But it won’t impact the bulk of the prison population, estimated at about 2.2 million in 2012, which is locked up mainly in state prisons and jails.

prison-commissionThe amendment would make a difference for people like Dana Bowerman, a Texas honor student who developed a meth addiction at 15, under her father’s influence. When she was 30 years old, Bowerman was arrested with her father and several others and convicted of drug conspiracy charges. Because of the stiff sentencing guidelines, she was sentenced to 19 years and seven months.

Bowerman had committed no violent crimes. She’s since kicked her habit and wants a second chance, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that documented her story. Under the proposed amendment, she would serve 15 years and six months, Julie Stewart, FAMM’s president, said in testimony before the Sentencing Commission. Read more