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The federal government and many state governments have slowly been moving away from mandatory minimum sentence for nonviolent offenders. Many of these reforms have been tremendously helpful. But more reforms are necessary to keep big government out of the courtroom.
One of the key reasons reform is needed is the increasing cost of housing nonviolent offenders. The money spent to house nonviolent offenders for a minimum time period cannot be used to apprehend and house violent offenders. On average it costs almost $30,000 to house a federal prisoner and detaining prisoners takes up 25% of the Department of Justice’s budget. State spending on corrections has increased by 300% in the last 20 years
There are not unlimited funds available for law enforcement, spending decisions must be made. Should we spend more money on housing nonviolent offenders? Or should we focus funds on apprehending and detaining violent criminals who pose a threat to our community?
Another problem with mandatory minimums is that longer sentences for nonviolent offenders mean there are fewer cells available for violent offenders. Since Congress created mandatory minimums for drug crimes in 1986, the federal prison population has ballooned from 24,000 to 214,000. The United States now houses 2.3 million prisoners and 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars. This is all while the violent crime rate has dropped to its lowest level since 1978.
The reason for the increase in federal prisoners even, while the violent crime rate is dropping, is government overreach. Today, nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses. Around 60% of these nonviolent offenders are subject to mandatory minimums even though over half of them had little or no criminal record.
There are many ways to reform mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders. At the federal level there should be support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill which has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. The bill would decrease, but not abolish, penalties for nonviolent offenders. The bill would also expand the “safety valve” that allows federal judges to sentence below mandatory minimums.
Another reform would have more judges making juries aware that a conviction would result in a mandatory minimum sentence of so many years. Jurors would appreciate having all the information and knowing what sentence a conviction would carry.
The most important reforms will take place at the state level where each state can experiment to see what works best for them. Reforms at the state level could include probation, supervised release, treatment programs and job training. These reforms have been implemented by several traditionally Republican states, including Texas, where policymakers saved taxpayers $2 billion while reducing crime and repeat offender rates.
Top-down mandates from the federal government do not work. We need to push for more reform of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders. This would allow more money to be spent on apprehending and detaining actual violent offenders who are dangers to society.