Today the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation that reduces the federal prison population, decreases racial disparities, saves taxpayer money, and reunites nonviolent drug law offenders with their families sooner. The reforms are supported by a strange bedfellows group of senators, including Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The legislation is opposed by some U.S. prosecutors who continue to defend a harsh, racially unjust system that has led to a greater percentage of black men being locked up in the U.S. than in South Africa at the height of Apartheid.
The bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, is the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades. It would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and expand the ability of judges to use their own discretion when sentencing defendants, so that judges can consider the unique facts of each case and each individual before them. It would also make the reform to the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that Congress passed in 2010 retroactive, so that thousands of people sentenced under the old draconian and racially unjust disparity can leave prison early.
Even though U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged the committee to reform mandatory minimum sentencing yesterday, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys took the somewhat rare step of opposing the Attorney General by releasing a letter in opposition to reform. “We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as ‘broken’ or in need of major reconstruction,” the organization said. “Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving.”
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, mandatory minimums have significantly contributed to overcrowding and racial disparities in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The BOP operates at nearly 140% capacity – and is on track to use one-third of the Justice Department’s budget. More than half of the prisoners in the BOP are serving time for a drug law violation. Even though African-Americans are no more likely than Whites to use or sell drugs, evidence shows they are far more likely to be prosecuted for drug law offenses and far more likely to receive longer sentences than Whites.
With less than 5% of the world’s population – but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population – the U.S. leads the world in the incarceration of its own citizens. With the vote today it is clear that both liberal stalwarts and Tea Party favorites recognize that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers. Yet federal prosecutors are defending the current system with its enormous racial disparities, mass incarceration, and unjust penalties.
Apparently they are still living in the dark ages. Federal prosecutors are so entitled by decades of unfettered discretion they don’t feel the need to acknowledge the consensus emerging around them that the system of mass incarceration is profoundly unfair and unsustainable. Their statement typifies the singular barrier prosecutors represent to reforming the deeply flawed criminal justice system.
Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.