In recent weeks, officials from Massachusetts to Nebraska have called for mandatory minimum sentencing reform in order to reduce the hundreds of thousands of inmates deluging the criminal justice system. Yet while state-based reform is slowly enacted, 200,000 inmates remain behind bars in overcrowded federal prisons costing millions of dollars each day. Fortunately, one proposed law may change that: the Smarter Sentencing Act.
Today, the average federal prison is overcrowded by 36 percent. In 2013, the total federal prison system had a capacity rated to hold 132,221 inmates, yet there were 176,484 inmates behind federal bars that year. In some correctional institutions, the inmate population has been50 percent over the rated capacity.
The reason for this overcrowding is in part due to drug laws, and more specifically, mandatory minimum sentencing laws. While initially intended to deter drug use with harsh sentences, mandatory minimums have instead led to a surge of non-violent drug offenders locked in federal penitentiaries without any possibility to negotiate their sentencing.
Drug offenders are now given prison time as part of their sentences at much higher rates than prior to 1986, when Congress established mandatory minimum drug sentences. Moreover, the length of time drug offenders spend in prison has largely increased — drug offenders in federal prison in 2013 were facing an average sentence of 11 years (at a cost of $79 per day for each inmate).
In 2013, more people were admitted to federal prison under drug charges than for any other crime. In fact, nearly half of all current federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes. A main reason for this is because mandatory minimums result in more guilty convictions by shifting discretion from judges to prosecutors. On top of this, drug laws are filled with disparities that result in inordinate convictions.
Take, for example, the sentencing established for drug offenders found guilty of cocaine possession. While the only difference between crack and powdered cocaine is a bit of baking soda and the method of ingestion, the Controlled Substances Act mandates a minimum five-year.