Lee, Durbin bring Smarter Sentencing Act; at what cost are mandatory sentences?

U.S. Capitol Building, Washington D.C. | stock photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Thursday, U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, were joined by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, in announcing legislation to modernize federal drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

With federal prison populations skyrocketing and about half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, the proposed changes could save American taxpayers billions of dollars in the first years of enactment.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”

“Our current federal sentencing laws are out of date, they are often counterproductive, and in far too many cases in Utah and around the country they are unjust,” Lee said. “The Smarter Sentencing Act is a common-sense solution that will greatly reduce the financial and, more importantly, the human cost imposed on society by the broken status quo. The SSA will give judges the flexibility and discretion they need to impose stiff sentences on the most serious drug lords and cartel bosses, while enabling nonviolent offenders to return more quickly to their families and communities.”

The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, and almost 50 percent of those federal inmates are serving sentences for drug offenses.

Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster distrust of the criminal justice system.

This large increase in the prison population has put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is more than 30 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts both inmates and guards at risk.

This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing federal inmates, the cost of which has increased by more than 1,100 percent.

In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementation of these reforms would save taxpayers approximately $3 billion over ten years.

Submitted by the Offices of Sen. Mike Lee

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