The Congressional Budget Office reports that legislation designed to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders would save U.S. taxpayers more than $4 billion over a decade.
Over the past 30 years, the number of inmates in America’s prisons has increased by 500 percent, due in large part to federal sentencing requirements put in place as a result of the never-ending War on Drugs. Bipartisan legislation put forth by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) earlier this month would incrementally “modernize” drug-sentencing policies.
“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said of the legislation last month. “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manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”
According to the CBO’s numbers, the lawmakers’ Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 would, between 2015 and 2024, give as many as 250,000 nonviolent offenders the opportunity for release earlier than under current law.
The reduction in the prison population would save American taxpayers about $4.36 billion over the same period.
“Today’s CBO report proves that not only are mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses often unfair, they are also fiscally irresponsible,” Durbin said. “By making the incremental, targeted changes that Senator Lee and I have proposed in our Smarter Sentencing Act, we can save taxpayers billions without jeopardizing public safety.”
The lawmakers have been careful to stress that their legislation would not repeal mandatory minimum sentences altogether but gives judges more power to sentence nonviolent offenders on a case-by-case basis.
The Smarter Sentencing Act currently pending in the Senate is just one portion of a national shift in attitudes about dealing with nonviolent drug crimes. The Obama administration has announced modest plans to shift the nation’s justice system away from mandatory sentences for low-level offenders, and the Department of Justice announced in April that it was considering clemency for thousands of prisoners sentenced under the laws.
Still, Congress is the only entity real power to reduce mandatory minimums. After all, it was a perfect storm of congressional knee-jerk reaction and electoral politics that created the laws in the first place.
As Eric Sterling, Counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, told NPR’s “This American Life” back in 1999:
The bottom line was the Republicans won in 1984 on the crime issue. They had beat up the Democrats. They had attacked the Democrats as soft. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate for president, went down in flames.
And so we now come to 1986, a year in which it is possible that the Democrats could retake the Senate, a year in which the stage is being set for the 1988 election, in which Reagan will not be on the ballot. And so in the overall national political calculus, Democrats are looking around for traction.
And then there was a famous overdose.
…So in June, 1986, at the end of the basketball season, the champion player from the University of Maryland basketball team, Len Bias, signs with the NBA champion team, the Boston Celtics, the team of the home town of House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Bias flies to Boston. He’s going to be the hope of the Celtics. Bias flies home. He’s celebrating with his friends. And he dies in the middle of the night from an overdose of cocaine of some kind.
The politicians politicked, the media frenzied and American Main Street became terrified of the crack cocaine epidemic it didn’t know it had before a celebrity who happened to have ties to the House Speaker died.
Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill got the “tough on drugs” legislative train rolling full speed ahead, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle attempting to outdo one another on drug sentencing laws. At some point, the campaign-fodder legislation outpaced reason.
… [I]t was being introduced at a point in which there was no longer an opportunity for hearings. We had no hearings,” Sterling said. “We did not consult with the Bureau of Prisons, or with the federal judiciary, or with DEA, or with the Justice Department, to at least find out from those folks what would be the effect of mandatory minimums. What are appropriate mandatory minimums?
…The numbers that we picked in the Judiciary Committee, the 20 grams of crack cocaine, would have triggered a five-year federal minimum. The Republicans in the Senate dropped the 20 grams to five grams and raised the– from five years to 40 years because the Republicans were going to be tougher.
Decades later, hundreds of thousands of lives stalled and billions of dollars spent, lawmakers are finally moving in the other direction. But with little political capital to gain from frantic headlines, don’t expect the reforms to come quickly.
The full 1999 NPR piece on mandatory minimums is worth a listen and available here.