Press Release  | 01/30/2014

Groundbreaking Bipartisan Legislation Reforming Federal Drug Sentences Passed By U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee

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Most Expansive Drug Sentencing Reform in Decades Would Reduce Mandatory Minimums, Give Judges More Discretion, and Release Some Nonviolent Drug Offenders from Prison Early

Prosecutors Still Opposing Efforts to Bring Racial Justice and Common Sense to Nation’s Criminal Justice System

Today the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation that would reduce the federal prison population, decrease racial disparities, save taxpayer money, and reunite 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 tide has turned against punitive drug policies that destroy lives and tear families apart,“ said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites there’s now consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers.”

The Smarter Sentencing Act is the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades. It would:

  • Cut federal mandatory minimums for drug law violations, so that nonviolent offenders serve less time behind bars.
  • 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 policy can leave prison early.
  • 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.

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.”

The defense of the current criminal justice system by federal prosecutors strikes many advocates of reform as outrageous and tone-deaf. 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.

“It is disgraceful that prosecutors continue to defend a criminal justice system that is profoundly racially unjust and cruel,” said Piper.  “While support for major reform is growing in both political parties, many prosecutors are still living in the dark ages.”

Contact: Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Bill Piper 202-669-6430

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