Recently, the Obama administration has made substantial efforts towards reducing the rate of mass incarceration within the federal prison system. Most significantly, the Justice Department has embraced a policy of failing to seek mandatory maximum sentences for low-level and non-violent drug offenders. In addition, both the president and the Justice Department have made gestures that will mean increased rates of commuted sentences for these kinds of offenders.
But executive action alone is not enough to quell the swelling ranks of the federal inmate population. Congressional action is also necessary for the furtherance of this goal. Without significant legislative action and judicial cooperation, millions of individuals will continue to serve lengthy and disproportionate prison sentences despite criminal defense arguments insisting that they should be spared from this fate.
At present, two bills being considered in Congress could help to ensure that fewer Americans are forced to live out a significant portion of their lives behind bars for low-level and non-violent offenses. Each bill has received bipartisan support and may actually pass both legislative chambers.
The first bill is entitled the Smarter Sentencing Act. This piece of legislation would not only give judges greater discretion to sentence individuals below mandatory minimum levels, it would also cut many mandatory minimum sentences in half. In addition, it would help to ensure that inmates currently imprisoned for outdated crack cocaine offenses will have a genuine shot at early release.
The second bill is the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. This piece of legislation would help to ensure that prisoners do not reoffend upon release by granting inmates access to job training, education and substance abuse treatment programs.
Source: The New York Times, “A Rare Opportunity on Criminal Justice,” March 15, 2014