There was an extraordinary sight on the Senate floor early Tuesday evening as five members of the chamber, led by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), engaged in a nearly 40-minute conversation about S. 502, the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill that would reform mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.
The unlikely coalition of senators — which included Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) — sought to dispel falsehoods peddled by those who oppose a rational, cost-effective approach to sentencing. These senators are just examples of the support the Smarter Sentencing Act has in Congress. Among those who’ve cosponsored the Senate version are Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY). The House version, H.R. 920, was introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and is cosponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Mick Mulvaney (R-SC).
Here are some of the facts about mandatory minimums and the Smarter Sentencing Act that were presented on the floor of the Senate during yesterday’s discussion.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences Are Not a Deterrent
Last year, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued a major study of incarceration in the United States. One of their main conclusions is that mandatory sentencing and excessively long sentences generally do not have a significant deterrent effect and are ineffective unless targeted at offenders with a very high rate of recidivism or extremely dangerous offenders. The National Research Council concluded: “[We] have reviewed the research literature on the deterrent effect of such laws and have concluded that the evidence is insufficient to justify the conclusion that these harsher punishments yield measurable public safety benefits.” — Mike Lee
Mandatory Minimums Hurt Communities and Continue a Cycle of Inescapable Poverty
Our communities have paid a high cost for the stiff sentences that mandatory minimums require. The National Research Council found that high incarceration rates are concentrated in poor, minority neighborhoods, and that the incarceration of significant numbers of residents in these neighborhoods actually compounded existing social and economic problems such as unemployment, poverty, family disruption, poor health, and drug addiction. — Mike Lee
Mass Incarceration is Taking Resources Away from Law Enforcement
The Federal prison population has grown by 750 percent since 1980 and our Federal prisons are approximately 30 percent over capacity. Over the past 30 years, spending on Federal incarceration has increased more than 1,100 percent. Our exploding prison population now consumes a quarter of the Justice Department’s discretionary budget. These runaway expenditures are undermining other law enforcement efforts. The U.S. attorney’s office and the Drug Enforcement Administration have already lost hundreds of positions, and resources for State and local law enforcement have decreased dramatically. — Dick Durbin
Mandatory Minimums Tear Families Apart
A friend of mine brought to my attention a “Sesame Street” clip where even the educators in public broadcasting are seeing that certain communities have so many of their men — nonviolent offenders — being sucked into the prison system for these long sentences that we have created a generation of children growing up without their parents. That has a difficult impact when it comes to the poverty of that family, when it comes to the challenges of having a provider pull away. — Cory Booker
Mandatory Minimums Put Low-Level Offenders in Jail While Allowing Major Players to Cut Deals
Defendants who organize or manage a drug trafficking enterprise have the most information with which to bargain as they enter into discussions with prosecutors. Low-level offenders who have less responsibility and less knowledge often don’t have much information to offer, no matter how long a mandatory minimum sentence they might face in a particular case.
Judge William Wilkins, who was appointed to the bench by President Reagan and served as the first chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, said the following: “There are few Federal judges engaged in criminal sentencing who have not had the disheartening experience of seeing major players in crimes before them immunize themselves from the mandatory minimum sentences by blowing the whistle on their minions, while the low-level offenders find themselves sentenced to the mandatory minimum prison term so skillfully avoided by the kingpins.” — Mike Lee
State Reforms Have Worked
We can save money and still protect public safety with lower rates of incarceration and a greater reliance on community revision and treatment. The wonderful thing about this is that what I am saying is not speculation. It is the facts we are experiencing in states that have already embraced reducing mandatory minimums. In fact, many of these states…are red states. We are seeing this path of reducing crime, reducing prison populations, creating savings, being shown to us in State after State model that the federal government should follow — models seen in Texas and in Georgia. — Cory Booker
Smarter Sentencing Targets Overcriminalization
This is important because this section requires the Attorney General and the heads of certain Federal agencies to each submit a public report that identifies all criminal offenses that are established by statute or regulation that each agency enforces. These reports must provide information on the elements of each offense, the potential penalty and the required intent for each offense, and the number of prosecutions for each offense for the last 15 years. This is valuable information. This section also requires the Attorney General and the relevant agencies to establish a publicly accessible index for these offenses. This information is an important step toward understanding the scope of the overcriminalization problem. — Jeff Flake
There’s Broad Transpartisan Support for Smarter Sentencing
This incredible convergence of people from all different stripes in our country, all different backgrounds, races, religions, and political philosophy. Let’s just start with the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Judicial Conference have both urged Congress to reduce mandatory minimum penalties and both have stated their support for this legislation, the Smarter Sentencing Act. It is supported by faith leaders such as the Justice Fellowship and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It is supported by advocacy groups across the political spectrum and has been endorsed by conservative leaders such as Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform, Eli Lehrer and the R Street Institute, Pat Nolan, former president of the Justice Fellowship, Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Institute, and FreedomWorks.
It is supported by law enforcement leaders, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which represents many of the largest district attorney’s offices in the country — big cities. They represent county, Federal, State, and local prosecutors — prosecutors at every level. The bill is supported by the Council of Prison Locals, which represents more than 28,000 correctional workers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The bill is also supported by crime victims themselves, including the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, a coalition of more than 1,000 different organizations that advocate on behalf of victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. — Cory Booker
Smarter Sentencing Will Save Taxpayers $3 Billion in Ten Years
The Congressional Budget Office has taken a look at this and has analyzed the impact of passing the Smarter Sentencing Act. It is true there will be costs incurred mainly because of benefits that are paid to people who are not in prison for so long, but the CBO estimated that in the first 10 years alone, our bill would save approximately $4 billion, for a net savings of about $3 billion. — Jeff Flake