How Long Is Too Long? Congress Revisits Mandatory Sentences

Post Date: January 9, 2014

(NPR) — Mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug dealers were once viewed as powerful levers in the nation’s war against drugs, a way to target traffickers, and punish kingpins and masterminds.

But Congress, which approved the requirements in 1986 when crack-fueled crime gripped America’s big cities, is now grappling with a present-day, lower-crime reality: Have the mandatory sentences put the wrong sort of offenders in prison, for too long, and at too high a cost for the nation to bear — both literally and figuratively?

Those questions are expected to be addressed in a comprehensive Senate bill being hammered out in negotiations driven by a seemingly unlikely alliance.

How unlikely? Among those driving the conversation are Tea Party Republicans like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, and liberal Democrats including Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Under discussion are proposals that would cut minimum sentences by half, give judges more sentencing discretion, and retroactively apply new crack cocaine sentencing standards to prisoners convicted under previous requirements.

Also being considered are in-prison programs that could help nonviolent inmates earn earlier release.

(President Obama dipped his toe into the debate recently when he commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted of crack cocaine crimes. The convicts would have received far shorter prison terms under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act standards designed to reduce the disparity between sentencing rules for crack and powder cocaine.)

“There’s a lot more momentum today than in the 20 years I’ve been doing this,” says Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM.

“Over-incarceration used to be a fringe issue, but it has become more of a mainstream concern,” says Stewart, who started FAMM after her brother received a prison sentence for growing pot plants. Read more