Possible Changes to Federal Mandatory Minimums

Members of Congress are coming together to reduce the country’s over reliance on incarceration.

Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 502/ H.R. 920)

Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and  Richard Durbin aim to reduce the out-of-control federal prison population. “Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” said Lee, “by targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing policies.”

The legislation has three main parts.

  • The bill will expand the “safety valve,” which allows a judge to part from mandatory minimum sentencing laws if certain conditions are met. As currently drafted, the safety valve has only a minor impact on non-violent drug offenders.  The Smarter Sentencing Act will expand the current criteria for eligibility. This change is supported by over 60 percent of federal district court judges, many of whom object to mandatory minimum sentences.
  • It institutes retroactivity for those sentenced under old crack and powder cocaine laws.  In 2010, the Congress passed and the President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced a long-maligned sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. While a provision in that law allowed prisoners sentenced under pre- Fair Sentencing Act laws to apply for a sentence reduction, it did not automatically reduce an inmate’s sentence; inmates would have to petition a court for review.
  • The Smarter Sentencing Act reduces current mandatory drug sentences, allowing judges to determine the appropriate sentence.  Most individuals currently serving time for federal drug crimes receive penalties with a  5or 10 year mandatory minimum, which are therefore the main drivers of the increasing prison population.  The bill would cut these penalties in half.

According to a Congressional Budget Office estimate in 2014, the Smarter Sentencing Act would lead to a $4 billion reduction in Department of Justice spending overall from 2015-2024. The legislation is supported by a wide array of civil rights, law enforcement, and conservative groups.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is currently pending before the Senate Judiciary committee with the support of 12 bi-partisan co-sponsors.

Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Elimination Costs for Taxpayers in our National System (S. 467)

This measure aims to reduce the size of the federal inmate population and help prisoners reintegrate into society. The CORRECTIONS Act focuses on back changes to help those already in prison or being released from prison. While the bill does a number of things to reduce recidivism, there are a few key provisions:

  • The bill requires the Bureau of Prisons to create and institute a risk assessment tool, which would be used to determine if a prisoner is a low, medium or high risk for committing another offense. This evaluation would then determine the type of re-entry programs they would have access to while still inside prison. For example, if an inmate was determined to be a low or medium risk, they would be eligible for earned time off their sentence by completing recidivism reduction programs like vocation training, drug treatment, or education. The bill does exclude any offenders convicted of sex crimes, terrorism, or violent crimes, repeat offenders, organized crime participants, or major fraud offenders from earning credits under the program.
  • The bill requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review all recidivism reduction programs to ensure they are effective.
  • It would require DOJ to form partnerships with faith-based and community/non-profit organizations to provide programming for prisoners, and require the Bureau of Prisons to ensure any eligible inmate has access to substance abuse treatment programs before their release.
  •  Lastly, the bill directs the Bureau of Prisons to notify the Veterans Affairs Department and allow access to the VA for any inmate who has previously served in the U.S. armed forces.

The CORRECTIONS Act is currently pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee with the support of 9 bi-partisan co-sponsors.

Committee action on these bills should begin in the early fall.

This article is reprinted from the Brennan Center.