Now that Congress is within sight of passing the most significant federal sentencing reforms in a generation, it’s worth taking a closer look at where the legislation falls short.
The main driver of the federal prison population is, by far, the dramatic increase in the time people spend behind bars — specifically, those convicted of drug offenses, who account for nearly half of the nation’s 199,000 federal inmates. From 1988 to 2012, the average time served for drug crimes more than doubled in length, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That increase in the length of drug sentences comes at a great expense: an estimated $1.5 billion each year, based on how much it costs to keep a federal inmate behind bars.
The new sentencing-reform bills now moving through the Senate and House would help reduce some of the longest mandatory-minimum sentences, including ending the use of life without parole for drug crimes, and would give judges more power to impose a shorter sentence when the facts of a case warrant it.
But these fixes do not reach to the heart of the problem, which is that the vast majority of federal drug offenders serving outsize sentences are in for low-level, nonviolent crimes, and have no serious history of violence.
More than half of the current drug-offender population has no violent history at all, according to a new analysis by the Urban Institute and the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. Less than 14 percent were sentenced for using or threatening to use violence, or directing its use. And only 14 percent were sentenced for having a high-level or leadership role in a drug operation, the study found.
Keep up-to-date with drug policy developments by subscribing to the IDPC Monthly Alert.
Thumbnail: Flickr Gordon Incorporated