A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate today may not be perfect, commentators note, but it could go a long way toward achieving meaningful reform of the sentencing system for nonviolent drug offenders. Mandatory minimum sentences for low-level nonviolent drug crimes are often blamed for the enormous increase in prison populations over the past 30 years.
Advocates for change say that the sentencing scheme has not resulted in the promised reduction in drug crimes or reduction in recidivism. The primary achievement, they add, is an ever-increasing cost to taxpayers to support an overwhelming and unmanageable number of prisoners and detainees.
The proposal addresses the sentencing issues from both sides of the equation. Men and women charged with nonviolent drug crimes will not be entirely free of mandatory minimums, but judges would have more discretion to set the minimums aside — that is, to go below the minimum. Judges have complained about the system’s inflexibility, its failure to account for individual circumstances. This part of the bill should help.
Inmates who are serving their sentences under the mandatory guidelines will have the opportunity to earn time off for time spent in rehabilitation programs. The bill does not authorize additional spending, but its authors hope that offering inmates 10 days off their sentences for every 30 days they attend rehabilitation programs will make better use of existing programs. There is also an option for inmates to participate in community-based programs — outside prison walls — during the last part of their sentences. The programs, of course, would be supervised by the corrections department. Eligibility would be determined by regular assessments of inmates’ risk of reoffending.
The “three strikes” (mandatory life sentence) rule will also be eliminated for individuals convicted of a nonviolent drug crime for the third time. Again, though, the rule is not eliminated altogether.
None of these options will be available to anyone convicted of a violent crime. Individuals convicted of serious drug crimes will not be eligible, either.
Source: Chicago Tribune, “Bill to reduce sentences of nonviolent drug offenders has … bipartisan support?” Oct. 1, 2015