Push for sentencing changes underway in Congress

Lawmakers concerned about fairness of sentences and expense of running prisons
Associated Press
Jan 5, 2014

 

An unusual alliance of tea party enthusiasts and liberal leaders in Congress is pursuing major changes in the country's mandatory sentencing laws.

What's motivating them are growing concerns about both the fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons.

The congressional push comes as President Barack Obama and his Cabinet draw attention to the issue of mandatory sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders.

Supporters say mandatory minimum sentences are outdated, lump all offenders into one category and rob judges of the ability to use their own discretion.

They also cite the high costs of the policies. The Justice Department spends some $6.4 billion, about one-quarter of its budget, on prisons each year, and that number is growing steadily.

"People are coming here for different reasons, but there is a real opportunity," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the Senate's leading proponents of sentencing changes.

The push is being led by the Senate, where Durbin has worked with tea party stalwarts such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on legislation that would give judges more flexibility to determine prison sentences in many drug cases. At the same time, a right-left coalition is pressing for changes in the House.

Prison costs have soared in the past 30 years, when laws requiring mandatory prison time for many drug offenses were put in place.

The yearly cost for one federal inmate ranges from $21,000 to $33,000 depending on the prison's level of security. About half of the nation's more than 218,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes — and virtually all of them faced some form of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Tough-on-crime drug policies once united Republicans and Democrats who didn't want to appear weak on crime. Now reversing or revising many of those policies is having the same effect.

The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, drew bipartisan support for cutting penalties on crack cocaine offenses. The bill reduced a disparity between crack-related sentences and sentences for other drugs, though it only addressed new cases, not old ones.

Durbin, one of that bill's chief sponsors, has written a much broader bill with Lee, called the Smarter Sentencing Act. It would expand a provision that gives judges discretion for a limited number of nonviolent drug offenders. The new law would allow judges the same latitude for a larger group of drug offenders facing mandatory sentences.

It's one of four bills dealing with sentencing that the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up early in the year. The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he wants one consensus bill to clear the committee.

Leahy is a co-sponsor on the Durbin-Lee bill but has also introduced legislation with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would expand the safety valve even more, to all federal cases with mandatory sentences if certain conditions are met.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation late in December that is based on changes in Texas' state prison system.

A separate bill, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, allows inmates to earn credit for completing programs designed to reduce recidivism.

Leahy's committee delayed writing a sentencing bill several times in 2013. But supporters noted that the last sentencing legislation took months to negotiate and said that the committee has delayed work until early 2014 in large part because behind-the-scenes talks are proving fruitful. Durbin said he and Lee had been lobbying their fellow committee members — Durbin talking to skeptical Democrats, Lee to Republicans.

In the House, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party conservative, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., are co-sponsors of a companion to Durbin and Lee's bill.

A number of outside groups have expressed support for the Durbin-Lee bill, too, and they run the ideological spectrum, including the conservative Heritage Action, the American Bar Association, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder called on Congress to make permanent changes in sentencing laws and instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Just before Christmas, Obama used his presidential powers to press the issue. He commuted the sentences of eight people serving long drug sentences.

 

Comments

gene44870

its a shame we didnt do something about this before it got this far and now we have to deal with it to curb crime and to be able to take back the streets . If we can liberate other countries why cant we win this battle against drugs ? We spend billions of dollars in other countris and the need is right here in the homeland .Get with it congress , curbing the time that a drug offender gets is only going to make things worse , Taget the dealers , you shut down the dealers and the need to prison space will drop cause the dealers are not going to want to sit it out in prisen for a twenty dollar rock .
As far as the users are concerned , they will get help if they can not get the drugs , and the way you can stop it it make it harder to get

Kingsin

gene, they may not sit in prison for a twenty dollar rock- but they'll do it for the chance to sell a 1,000 of them. Too much money on the table to just walk away from for people who refuse to make an honest living in the first place. We can't win the war on drugs without stifling the demand side. As long as people want it- someone is going to get it for them. I personally think the "war" on drugs is a lost proposition- but one that needs to continue to be waged. The only change I see on the horizon is more of the population engaging in drug usage, not less. I think you can see the confirmation of that every night on T.V. with legalization occurring in Colorado, etc...

Peninsula Pundit

'I personally think the "war" on drugs is a lost proposition- but one that needs to continue to be waged.'
Glad you weren't making the decisions in Viet Nam. We'd still be there with that reasoning.
I wonder what else do you do that you know doesn't work but still persist in doing? Isn't that the definition of insanity?

Nor'easter

Is this an attempt to keep Congress out of prisons?

Really are you ...

Hmmm. They want to push for sentencing changes. What is going on? Congressmen, big bank CEO's and the illegal drug trade manufacturers do not go to jail or prison for what they do. It is everyone else in between that goes to jail. But what gets me is the people who do not work, that post bond the next day. We need to make the incarcerated work, if need be, bring back the chain gangs. Overhearing people talking about having to serve a sentence. "Yeah I'd go back to jail. 3 hots and a cot, no work. Yeah I'd go back to jail." this is long past due, but what does congress really have in mind? But every person with any kind of law breaking record into a nationwide database? Obamacare? The weapons issue? What will they call this? Obamacop?

dorothy gale

Makes no sense that sometimes non-violent offenders do more prison time than murderers, who get plea deals and a slap on the wrist. Prisons are not about rehabilitation. They make people worse. It is our legal system that needs to be reformed.

Babo

Up until the war on drugs, prisons were meant to hold true dangers to society. In other words people who commit crimes of violence, career con artists, and property crimes. But the war on drugs created an exponential increase in prisoners and a growth industry in corrections. Politicians loved it because they appear "tough on crime" and create lots of government jobs and contracts for constituents.

In the mid 90's the federal government promoted the explosion in the prison population through Truth In Sentencing grants. These multi million dollar grants were awarded to state who would change their sentencing structure from indeterminate (e.g. 1-5 years, 10-15 years, 10-25 years) for crimes to a determinate sentence structure with mandatory times for certain crimes. The grants had to be used to build prisons.

In Ohio, the Voinovich administration along with AG Betty Montgomery jumped on the grants. Voinovich relatives' companies received the lion's share of the grants and our prison population ballooned 400% from 1995 until 2008 even though the violent crime rate went down and or population remained stagnant.

All sorts of government jobs were created and the prison industrial complex became a powerful lobbying force.

Incarcerating people for non violent crimes such as drug possession and low level trafficking to support one's own habit, and low level theft crimes does not benefit society. Non violent people are placed in an environment with violent criminals and taught the law of the jungle.

Meanwhile the major criminals such as drug cartels escape prosecution due to pay offs to the system and the people lose faith in the justice system as it has become about money and not fairness and justice.

We need to return to an indeterminate sentence structure that allows parole boards and judges to craft rational sentences and provide inmates with hope that good behavior will be rewarded. We need to stop incarcerating non violent people and non threats to society.

santown419

+1

hilltop

Legalize marijuana and tax it.

If the good Lord pushes it out of the soil, mankind shouldn't be regulating it.