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Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Going Through Congress

In order to address federal prison overcrowding issues, among other issues, the Senate is working on a bill that would reduce the federal prison population and also address racial disparities among federal inmates. The law would be called the Smarter Sentencing Act. Notwithstanding the obvious pessimism regarding anything considered “Smarter” successfully coming out of Congress these days, the bill does appear to be designed to address some of the serious problems that result in unnecessary and unnecessarily long prison sentences. For instance, the bill would cut some mandatory minimum sentences and give judges greater discretion to sentence defendants under the mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimum sentences, created by legislators who have no knowledge of the circumstances of a particular case and a particular defendant, may be the worst policies that contribute to unnecessarily long prison sentences.

The bill would also make more egalitarian crack cocaine sentencing reforms retroactive so people who were sentenced under the much harsher crack cocaine guidelines of the past may be able to petition the court to get a more fair and lighter sentence that people charged with crack cocaine charges today are eligible for. As we have discussed on this blog in the past, defendants charged with crack cocaine crimes were often exposed to much higher sentences under the federal guidelines than similarly situated defendants charged with powder cocaine crimes. The huge sentencing disparity was changed several years ago to make crack cocaine and powder cocaine crimes more similar, although there is still a fairly significant difference in the sentencing guidelines between the two types of cocaine crimes.

While the bill is still working its way through the process, it does seem to have fairly broad support from legislators who believe the current laws, particularly minimum mandatory sentences, are too harsh to others who appreciate the significant and wasteful taxpayer expenses that go along with imprisoning so many people in the United States, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses.