In what could be a boon for communities of color, Democratic and Republican Senators from New Jersey to Illinois to Utah are working to overhaul prison sentence guidelines in an effort to give judges more control to mete out punishments for nonviolent drug offenders.
U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) the minority whip, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), have joined Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in an effort to dismantle mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have caused the federal prison population to explode, with about half of those behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses, reports St. Louis Public Radio.
Last week, Lee introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 aimed at reducing the size of the prison population, which according to The Hill, has skyrocketed by more than 500 percent since the 1980s, and almost half of those federal inmates are doing time for drug offenses such as possession.
Many of the inmates are Black, according to Hilary O. Shelton, the NAACP Washington Bureau Director and Senior Vice President for Advocacy, who praised the measure, saying unfair prison sentences have taken an emotional and economic toll on African American families. Blacks make up about 40 percent of the nearly 2.3 million prison overall population, although African Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to Shelton, which is working with lawmakers to reduce sentencing guidelines.
“Minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines have had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities and we applaud the senators for their work,” Shelton, a longtime advocate for sentence reform guidelines, told NewsOne. “Mandatory sentence laws were done arbitrarily to get tough on crime in an uninformed way. It’s now time to change all of that. A young person should not have to pay for a mistake for the rest of his or her life. ”
While the measure does not eliminate mandatory sentencing or decrease any maximum penalties, it would expand a judge’s purview over sentencing for certain non-violent drug offenders, the Hill says.
“A lot of people like to refer to the fact that it costs $20,000 a year in this country to put a person in a minimum security prison, but that, in my opinion, is not the most significant cost,” Lee said, the Hill writes. “The most significant cost is the human one.”
Durbin says billions of dollars are wasted to house criminals long term for crimes that do not match the sentence.
“Billions of dollars that could be spent to prevent the commission of crimes and to make certain that we have the most effective prosecution sadly is put into long and lengthy sentences, which really don’t square up with the offense,” Durbin said, according to St. Louis Public Radio.
Despite its bipartisan support, the bill may face some obstacles. According to the Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has already voiced opposition to measure, but its backers are resolute.
“We’re not giving up on anybody, even Chuck Grassley,” Durbin said, the Hill reports.
Lawmakers are not the only ones to take up battle against strict sentencing guidelines. It is a signature initiative for outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who discussed the issue Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In the first full year since he imposed reforms to Department of Justice charging policies in nonviolent drug trafficking cases, federal drug prosecutors last year pursued mandatory minimums at the lowest rate on record.
“For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety. I have made a break from that philosophy,” Holder said in a the statement.
“While old habits are hard to break, these numbers show that a dramatic shift is underway in the mindset of prosecutors handling nonviolent drug offenses. I believe we have taken steps to institutionalize this fairer, more practical approach such that it will endure for years to come.”