After decades of pushing for sentencing reform, Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, recently told the Huffington Post that she is now is the time for reform. Ms. Stewart stated she is now seeing the most momentum behind changing sentencing laws since she began pushing for reform back in 1993.
Ms. Stewart is not alone. Legislative leaders are also pushing for change. Recent reform efforts that may find success in Congress this year are aimed primarily at mandatory sentencing guidelines used in crimes involving drug charges.
Legislation considered in the Senate
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky recently introduced a bill to the Senate that would allow judges a greater amount of control when sentencing those charged with federal crimes that come with a mandatory minimum sentence. The judges would be able to impose a sentence below this mandatory minimum in cases where the judge feels a shorter sentence is appropriate.
The bill, referred to as the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, was introduced in the Senate in March of 2013. It is currently under review with the Committee on the Judiciary.
In addition to allowing judges the ability to determine sentencing without being forced to follow these predetermined “minimums,” the bill could also help address the current overcrowding issue in the nation’s prisons. Senator Leahy notes that the prison population grew by over 700 percent between 1970 and 2010. Over 2 million people were incarcerated in the United States at the end of 2011 and almost half of these prisoners are jailed on drug charges.
The increase in prisoners has also translated into an increase in prison costs. In 2007 the U.S. spent over $5 billion on federal prisons and in 2012 the Federal Bureau of Prisons requested aid in covering over $6.8 billion in costs. Not only is locking up those accused of non-violent crimes for long sentences expensive, but it also takes away funds that could be used towards programs to reduce the occurrence of crime in the first place. If this bill is passed, additional funding may be available for law enforcement efforts and to help fund crime prevention programs.
Impact of drug charges
As outlined above, some drug charges fall within the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. In these situations, a judge may not have the power to apply a lower sentence, even for non-violent offenders. As a result, anyone charged with a drug crime should take the charges seriously.
If you are charged with a drug crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. This professional will be able to help you build a strong defense and better ensure your legal rights are protected.