It's not often that Republicans and Democrats can agree on anything, but one issue has recently brought the two sides together. After decades of enforcing harsh penalties for simple and non-violent drug crimes, lawmakers are now moving towards a more measured approach to federal drug crimes. As a result, thousands of people convicted of low-level federal drug crimes are ready to be released.
Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commision decided to lower the recommended sentences for people convicted of drug felonies. Those sentence reductions can be applied retroactively, so that people who were already convicted of long prison sentences for federal drug charges can be released earlier than their initial sentencing suggested. On average, prison terms will be reduced by an average of 25 months.
Under the changes, a judge will review each case to determine whether the release would represent a safety concern for the public. In many of these cases, the individuals have already served 10 or more years for their crime. Almost 6,000 inmates are set to be released next month. In all, the Justice Department expects as many as 40,000 prisoners could take advantage of the sentence reductions. Some will go to halfway houses or home confinement before they are put on supervised release. Prisoners who are foreign citizens face deportation.
There has been a national trend to reconsider the country's harsh approach to drug offenders, who make up almost half of the federal prison population. When Eric Holder was Attorney General, he directed federal prosecutors not to seek the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Last year, the Justice Department provided for early release for thousands of inmates with similar offenses. Now the U.S. Sentencing Commission has voted to lower recommended sentences for all drug offenses.
Advocates for prison reform say that there is no evidence that longer sentences for drug offenses have an effect on public safety. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are now coming together to change the way low-level drug offenders are penalized. A bipartisan group of senators including five Democrats and four Republicans, have introduced a bill to lower the mandatory minimum sentences, and to create a program to help convicts adjust to society.
The proposed changes would lower the national prison population, give judges more discretion when it comes to sentencing, reduce penalties for repeat drug offenders, and eliminate the mandatory life prison provision in the three-strikes law. It will also add programs to help prisoners get job and skills training, and help juvenile offenders get their criminal records cleared.
Public support overwhelmingly supports eliminating mandatory minimums. According to one poll, 77% of Americans say mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders should be eliminated so that judges can make case-by-case determinations. The majority against mandatory minimums crosses all political and racial lines.
“Nonviolent drug offenders aren't going to stay in jail forever,” said Chuck Schumer, one of the senators behind the bill, “and everyone in prison is going to be given the kind of tools they need to come out and become productive citizens so that we don't waste lives.”
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