From White House to Congress, Drug Sentencing Reform Is One of Few Issues Democrats, Republicans Agree On
The bill, which was introduced as S.1410 in the Senate by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT) in July, would cut the length of some mandatory minimum drug sentences by half and expand access to the existing safety valve for federal drug offenders. It would also afford retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act, which was signed into law in 2010 to reduce the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences.
“Mandatory minimum sentencing is a costly and counterproductive cookie-cutter approach that removes a judge’s ability to apply a fairer sentence,” said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “At a time when Congress can’t agree on anything, Members in both chambers – and on both sides of the aisle – are stepping up efforts to address mass incarceration. From the White House to Congress, there is a growing consensus that mandatory minimums are an abject failure, wasting billions of tax dollars and destroying communities.”
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, mandatory minimums have significantly contributed to overcrowding and racial disparities in the Bureau of Prisons. The BOP operates at nearly 140% capacity – and is on track to use one-third of the Justice Department’s budget. More than half of the prisoners in the BOP are serving time for a drug law violation.
With less than 5% of the world’s population – but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population – the U.S. leads the world in the incarceration of its own citizens. Research has shown that nonviolent, low-level drug offenders have contributed significantly to the dramatic rise in incarceration in the last four decades.
“I am honored to join Congressman Labrador as a cosponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act,” said Rep. Scott. “Granting federal judges more discretion in sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses is the right thing to do. Studies of mandatory minimums conclude that they fail to reduce crime, they waste the taxpayers’ money, and they often require the imposition of sentences that violate common sense. This bipartisan bill targets particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returns discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner. This legislation is an important step in updating sentencing policies that are not working, that are costing taxpayers too much, and that do nothing to make our families and communities safer.”
Momentum to reform mandatory minimums has picked up steam in recent years:
- In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, which significantly reduced the racially unjust disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences and eliminated the first mandatory minimum penalty since the 1970s.
- This year, in addition to the Smarter Sentencing Act in the Senate and House, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Representative Bobby Scott have also introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would expand a safety valve provision to all mandatory minimum sentences.
- Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from four conservative witnesses, including Sen. Paul, Mark Levin, policy director for the Texas Center for Public Policy’s Right on Crime Initiative, and former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman for Utah, who expressed concerns with the continued use of mandatory minimum sentencing.
- Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder said there are too many people in prison and it is time for federal sentencing reform. In his remarks, Attorney General Holder encouraged a partnership between the legislative and executive branches to work to solve the issue.
- Last Congress, Sen. Paul was successful in opposing a mandatory minimum provision during a frenzied attempt to ban dozens of new synthetic drugs.