To many who have never had a loved one in prison, or who were the victim of a crime, or who assumed that our judicial system delivered pristine justice at all times; a law to reduce sentences for non-violent crimes probably seems unnecessary at best or misguided at worse. But to the many inmates in federal prison, serving lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes, including drug trafficking, such a law is long overdue.
The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 was introduced in the United States Senate on July 31, 2013 and referred to the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee reported it to the entire Senate for consideration on January 30, 2014. The bill, introduced by Richard Durban, Democrat of Illinois, now has 10 cosponsors — 5 Democrats, 4 Republicans and 1 Independent. Among the Republican cosponsors are three of the Senate’s most conservative members — Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul.
The bill has a fairly good chance of becoming law. If that happens, according to a summary of the law produced by the Library of Congress, the following will result:
- It will amend the federal criminal code to direct the court to impose a sentence for specified controlled substance offenses without regard to any statutory minimum sentence if the court finds that the criminal history category for the defendant is not higher than category two (under current law, that the defendant does not have more than one criminal history point).
- It will authorize a court that imposed a sentence for a crack cocaine possession or trafficking offense committed before August 3, 2010, on motion of the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the government, or the court, to impose a reduced sentence as if provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time such offense was committed.
- It will amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act (CSIEA) to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, possessing, importing, or exporting specified controlled substances.
If it becomes law this bill will not afford very much comfort to prisoners convicted of violent crimes. But it may do something very good for the many (mostly black) men who are serving lengthy sentences for non-violent drug offenses. The bill is especially noteworthy for two things: First, it will remedy the significant disparity in sentences given for crack cocaine possession or trafficking as opposed to sentences for powdered cocaine possession and trafficking. Second, the bill will allow courts to disregard the mandatory minimum sentences if the defendant is not a violent criminal or repeat offender.
The effects of this bill, if it becomes law, will be retroactive. Many who are currently serving sentences could have a reduced sentence imposed and, in some cases, be immediately released from prison.
Aside from its implications for justice, this bill recognizes another reality. The financial cost of the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders is staggering. The nation’s prisons are full and, in some cases, overcrowded. The sentencing guidelines that put so many behind razor wire are viewed by many as unaffordable.
In the facilities where I minister, inmates are talking about this bill. When I lead Christian services, we take time to pray for the passage of this bill. For many, that may not seem like much. For those sentenced under the mandatory minimums, the prayers are fervent because the injustice seems so real.