Sentencing reform has taken a big step forward in reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. The House Judiciary Committee has approved the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, which is now making its way to the House of Representatives. The bill will reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders with an aim to reduce overcrowding in the federal prison system.
Introduced by Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, the bill will reduce mandatory minimum sentences for second drug offenses from 20 to 15 years in prison, and reduce third offense penalties from life in prison to 25 years. Violent felonies will also be reduced from life to 25 years. If enacted, the bill would not only apply to individuals convicted of crimes going forward, but will also apply retroactively to those already serving time.
However, the reforms will not apply to all offenders equally. Certain gun crimes, and drug trafficking that involves the powerful prescription drug fentanyl, which is becoming increasingly popular, will see increased mandatory minimum sentencing. Additionally, some people who were convicted of a serious violent felony will not get the retroactive benefits of the new law.
Another amendment to the bill would require the Justice Department and the U.S. Sentencing Commission to update their 2011 mandatory minimum sentencing report with more recent reporting and data collection.
This federal prison reform bill comes at a time when public support has shifted away from a “get tough” stance on crime. More and more states are following suit with their own prison sentencing reforms, as well as addressing the issue of mental health in the prison population. While criminal sentencing is often treated as a partisan issue, a recent poll indicated both sides are seeking a reform of the current prison sentencing system. Over 75% of the public supports changing the mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders.
“Adjustments to our sentencing laws are long overdue,” said committee member John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan. “We know extending incarceration beyond that which is appropriate actually increases recidivism.”
The Pew Charitable Trust has released a report on the increased time federal inmates are spending behind bars. In 2012, the average time a federal inmate spent in prison rose to 37.5 months, almost twice the average prison time in 1988. For drug offenders alone, the time in prison has risen from an average of two years up to five years. Taxpayers have been footing the bill for housing inmates for such long periods of time, to the tune of about $2.7 billion per year.
Prison reform advocates, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) support such legislation that would make changes to “harsh, expensive, one-size-fits-all” prison sentences, and are asking for even more changes in the final bill. FAMM President Julie Stewart has released a statement to address these changes. “As we have reflected on the bills and tried to determine their likely impact on past and future offenders, public safety, and the federal prison budget, we have concluded that these proposals fail to match the overwhelming support for reform that can be found across the political spectrum.”