Civil Liberties

Prison Reform: Smarter Sentencing Is Better Sentencing

A bipartisan Senate bill advances more effective and just criminal sentencing without putting public safety at risk.

Photo Credit: sakhorn

A bipartisan movement is building in the halls of Congress, and it’s on one of the unlikeliest of issues: sentencing reform.
 
While at first glance this may seem surprising, sentencing reform is rooted in the fundamental principles of both sides of the aisle and already has support from some of the most traditionally partisan members of Congress. So why are some moderate members of the Senate still clinging to the outdated “tough on crime” principles of the past?
 
We’re not sure, but it certainly doesn’t jibe with the facts.
 
The current state of our criminal justice system is proof enough that “tough on crime” is an ineffective and counterproductive strategy. Anyone doubting the need for sentencing reform should take a look at the numbers.
 
Our federal prison system has ballooned by nearly 800 percent in the last three decades, and nearly half of these inmates filling these cells are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Housing one person in a federal prison costs approximately $29,000 per year, which is a waste of scarce resources when there are cheaper and more just ways to ensure nonviolent offenders remain productive citizens. If the Bureau of Prisons needs a blueprint, all it needs to do is take a look at what’s going on in the states. Total state prison populations have decreased for the third year in a row, in part by employing probation and parole as a just and an effective alternative to prolonged incarceration for nonviolent offenders. States are getting smart on crime, while the federal prison system is missing the mark. 
 
Fortunately the Senate is expected to vote on the Smarter Sentencing Act. This bipartisan bill, introduced by Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), advances more effective and just criminal sentencing without putting public safety at risk. This legislation begins to do this by taking an incremental approach that aims to refocus resources on the most serious offenders and on crime prevention. 
 
The most important thing the Smarter Sentencing Act does is improve our current drug sentencing policy. First, it lowers certain drug mandatory minimums but does not lower the maximum sentences for these offenses, giving judges the discretion to dole out more proportionate minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Second, the bill slightly broadens eligibility criteria for the federal “safety valve,” which gives judges some wiggle room to reduce certain kinds of sentences.
 
The Smarter Sentencing Act also allows certain people sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 took effect to petition courts for sentence reductions consistent with that law, which reduced a decades-long sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. After the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, then-Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said, “[t]hrough this change in the thresholds for mandatory minimum sentences, we will be able to achieve needed fairness without impeding our ability to combat drug violence and protect victims. This important bipartisan agreement would strengthen our justice system.”
 
After a last minute addition during markup, however, the Smarter Sentencing Act also now includes several new mandatory minimums sentences. It’s unfortunate that the committee used this bill as a vehicle to expand these kinds of unfair sentences when mandatory minimums are the problem in the first place. Nevertheless, this bill will help tens of thousands more than it hurts.
 
The bottom line is that we need the Smarter Sentencing Act.
 
Sentencing reform is smart policy that all Members of Congress should embrace, regardless of ideology. The time has come for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to take another step toward supporting reasonable and critical reforms to the federal criminal justice system.
 
Our country’s federal prison system is an outrage, and we need to do something about it. The Senate should follow in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s footsteps and embrace the Smarter Sentencing Act as a bipartisan opportunity to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more humane.

In other words: more American.

Laura W. Murphy is director of the Washington Legislative Office at the American Civil Liberties Union.