It’s no secret that American jails and prisons are facing overcrowding problems. Over the last 30 years, the number of the incarcerated has shot up to over 2 million, over which half are convicted for drug crimes. Nearly 60 percent of federal drug offenders are sentenced under mandatory minimums – a ‘one size-fits-all’ law that imposes a particular sentence length for people who have committed certain crimes. Opponents of mandatory minimums have argued that these sentence laws have not only led to prison overcrowding and higher recidivism rates, but also a financial burden to taxpayers.
“Keeping people in prison longer than is necessary has created a budget crisis; one that threatens our public safety,” said president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Julie Stewart in a statement earlier in March. “Our sentencing policies have led to serious overcrowding in the federal Bureau of Prisons, which today consumes one of every four dollars available to the Department of Justice. It has become so dire that the Department of Justice has called the situation ‘unsustainable.'”
The Federal Register reports the average cost to keep one person in federal prison for one year is nearly $29,000. The National Association of State Budget Officers found that taxpayers spend over $50 billion annually for state prisons. For federal prisons, the U.S. spent nearly $540 million in 1980 — a number that has grown over 12 times in the last 30 years ($6.8 billion).
“This explosion in costs is driven by the expanded use of prison sentences for drug crimes and longer sentences required by mandatory minimums,” said founder of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist in his statement to the Judiciary House Committee in 2009. “…The benefits, if any, of mandatory minimum sentences do not justify this burden to taxpayers.”
Due its one-size-fits-all approach, mandatory minimum laws do not allow judges to impose shorter sentences for individual cases, which forces judges to charge defendants with a minimum sentence for certain types of crimes, stated Paul Larkin and Evan Bernick in their report titled, Reconsidering Mandatory Minimum Sentences: The Arguments for and Against Potential Reforms. The report goes on to say that opponents of mandatory minimums argue that the sentence laws don’t do anything to address the current disparities in the criminal justice system, but instead simply shift sentencing discretion from judges to prosecutors – whom, in the mind of opponents, are not fit for such a responsibility.
Currently, there are two bills with bipartisan support that have been introduced to address the problems associated with mandatory minimum sentences, they are: the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), and the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, introduced by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). The Safety Valve Act aims to apply to all federal mandatory minimums and add a provision that would allow judges to impose a shorter sentence for particular cases. The Smarter Sentencing Act would not apply to every mandatory minimum sentence, but would allow judges to impose a reduced sentence for nonviolent drug offenses.
Others, such at U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, have also proposed sentence reduction laws that would apply to nonviolent drug crimes in order to help alleviate prison populations and financial costs. “By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers,” Holder stated, “we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities.”