The Senate Judiciary Committee voted this month to advance a bipartisan bill giving judges more discretion in prison sentencing, moving away from mandatory minimums—especially for nonviolent offenses.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., filed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in October in a bid to reduce incarceration, reform sentencing, and reduce prison costs.
But Attorney General Jeff Sessions attacked the bill’s provisions ahead of the committee vote.
“Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences,” Sessions told Grassley, according to CNN.
Session ignited a firestorm of protest with his May 2017 memorandum to all federal prosecutors, calling for “consistent results” in sentencing. Sessions said prosecutors must pursue the “most serious, readily provable offense” that carries mandatory minimums.
Critics like Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocate “individualized” sentencing and crime-reduction programs. They warn of growing mass incarceration in the current system, a problem that could be prevented if sentences are less stringent, especially for juvenile or cooperative offenders.
Sessions prefers a crime-to-punishment consistency across the system. The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys warn reducing mandatory sentences could cause a jump in violent crime—which, combined with property crime, declined by 14.6 percent between 2010 and 2015.
Whether mandatory minimums for drug or gun crimes are a weapon against minorities, they do drain more Department of Justice money into corrections costs, now 25 percent of its budget.
“Fifty percent of federal prisoners are convicted for non-violent drug offenses,” according to Prison Fellowship. That’s more than 90,000 people, mainly men.
Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for policy and advocacy at Prison Fellowship, asked Congress in 2015 to provide “values-based” reform to solve the problem of an expanding and overcrowded prison system, while reducing overall expense. He advocated spending more to build “a more constructive prison culture” to help people become better citizens with a view to life again outside prison. —R.H.