Action Alert

Support Legislation To Modernize Drug Sentencing Policy and Reduce Mandatory Minimum Sentences

August 6, 2013

Support Legislation To Modernize Drug Sentencing Policy and Reduce Mandatory Minimum Sentences For Nonviolent Offenders


The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, in large part due to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences, which force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case.  Furthermore, as the prison population has increased so has the racial disparity among prisoners.  More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For African American males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. Two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color, and approximately half of all Americans incarcerated today are for non-violent offenses.  The results of these policies include the ruination of lives, the decimation of communities, and a deep distrust of the criminal justice system.

This large increase in prison populations has also put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts inmates and guards at risk. There is more than 50 percent overcrowding at high-security facilities. This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing inmates. It currently costs nearly $30,000 to house just one federal inmate for a year. There are currently more than 219,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half of them serving sentences for drug offenses.

To address this unacceptable and unnecessary problem, Senators Richard Durbin (IL), Mike Lee (UT), and Patrick Leahy (VT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act.  This crucial legislation would take three steps.  It would:

  • Expand the existing federal “safety valve”:  The current “safety valve” has been effective in allowing federal judges to appropriately sentence certain non-violent drug offenders below existing mandatory minimums. This safety valve, however, only applies to a narrow subset of cases. The Smarter Sentencing Act would broaden criteria for eligibility, yet still applying it only to certain non-violent drug offenses;
  • Promote sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act: The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which was signed into law in Aug. 2010 – reduced a decades-long 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Unfortunately, because of the timing of their sentences, some individuals are still serving far-too-lengthy sentences that Congress has already determined are unjust and racially disparate. The Smarter Sentencing Act allows certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law.; and
  • Increase individualized review for certain drug sentences: The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply.

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