The vigorous debate on prison and incarceration policy has created an unusual partnership between Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). Earlier this year, they introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act in the Senate, which dramatically alters federal sentencing laws for criminals past and present. The core idea is to end mandatory and arbitrary punishments for non-violent crime and give judges more discretion. The reform proposal has the potential to save over $3 billion over ten years.
In the 1980’s, a string of “tough-on-crime” laws were enacted by the federal and state governments to impose a standard sentence for certain non-violent crimes. Significant legislation passed, setting strict mandatory minimums for illegal drug possession, but the unintended consequences of such statutes were unexpectedly harsher sentences for minority populations. For example, crack-cocaine was cheaper than regular cocaine and was therefore concentrated in lower-income and subsequently minority neighborhoods. Possession of crack, even in low amounts, gave rise to judges passing uniform sentences disproportionately to minorities. Mandatory minimums bound judges’ hands from enacting less aggressive sentences for these non-violent crimes.
Consider that while 2.2 million Americans currently reside in prisons, there are an estimated 870,500 on parole, and almost 4 million on probation. Between the federal government and the states, we spend nearly $74 billion a year on corrections with more than 800,000 people working in the system. While the amounts for each state vary, it costs upwards of $29,000 to house a federal inmate. The corrections budget may not seem significant in a federal budget of over three trillion dollars, but in a time of limited choices, it is advisable to seek savings whenever possible.
Where do we go from here?
Senators Lee and Durbin gathered bipartisan support from both of their respective political parties and garnered 22 total Senate cosponsors. Some of the major provisions in the law would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences and expand safety valve provisions.
The Smarter Sentencing Act is a fair piece of legislation that reduces fixed federal sentences for non-violent criminals and cuts costs by lowering incarceration rates. However, the law applies only to federal prisons, which house only 216,000 inmates. That barely covers 10 percent of the total prison population. Unless the states liberate their own mandatory minimum and safety valve laws, the potential savings and reforms in the Act will only have a marginal impact.
Federal inmate composition is also very different from the states, as 40% of prisoners are incarcerated due to drug-related offenses and 30% are in jail for immigration violations. Most state prisons are composed of at least 50% violent criminals, which is substantially higher than the federal rate. To truly reduce prison spending and incarceration rates, the sentences for violent crime would have to be reduced in each state, which is highly unlikely given the public’s attitude toward those crimes.
The Senate bill has yet to be voted on, and therefore has not been enacted into law. Congress should move forward with this common-sense legislation but also seek further, more meaningful cost-saving reforms to modernize and improve our prison system.