State and Federal governments are increasingly growing worried about the money being spent on jails and prisons. The Federal Government has a budget crisis and federal prisons take a significant portion of the money for the Justice Department. This country has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. 1 in 28 children in our nation currently has a parent in prison. For the first time in our history 1 of every 100 adultls is incarcerated. The massive amount of money spent on the nation’s prison system directly takes away from other government programs such as education, law enforcement, and rehabilitative programs. Hispanics and African americans are disproportionately represented as they make up the majority of the countyr’s prison population. The current annual cost to house a federal prisoner is almost $30,000
Further, there are people serving sentences that are far too long. There is a strong movement, both federal and state, to reduce prison and jail sentences for drug related crimes. Almost half of the 216,000 federal inmates are serving sentences for drug realted convictions. In the last 20 years there has been a dramatic decrease in violent crimes but an increase in the incarceration of drug offenders that are non-violent. The reason is that the current federal drug laws were enacted in the late 80s and early 90s when the Miami Vice perception was that drugs were closely related to violence and guns. Led by the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which imposed harsh minimum penalties for trafficking and punishment was valued over rehabilitation.
That is no longer the case so federal and state officials are promoting a change to relax sentencing for non violent drug offenders. The United States Sentencing Commission was formed in the early 90s. It is a bipartisan collection of specialists designed to publish and maintain the federal sentencing scheme in an effort to ensure that federal sentencing across the country was uniform, fair and in conformity with best interests of the nation and its public safety. The commission is made up of mostly federal judges and law professors.
The commission keeps detailed statistics on sentencing and commissions studies in order to discover in what ways can they improve the guildelines. The commission regularly makes amendments to effectuate their goals. In January 2014, for the first time, the USSC proposed to amend the sentencing guidelines as they relate to drug offenses. The commission belive that there are too many drug offenders incarcerated. There is too much money being spent on incarcerating non violent drug offenders when that money can be better used on alternatives such as rehabilitation law enforcement and prosecutions. The federal bureau of prisons is part of the department of justice and shares the same budjet as the FBI, DEA and the United States Attorney. The more money spent on prisons, the less spent on prosecutions, and law enforcement.
The amendment would reduce the base offense level for all drug offenses by two points thereby reducing a sentence by an average of approximately one year. This is a modest change but within five years, the federal prison population would be reduced by more than 6,500 people.
On March 13, 2014 Attorney General, Eric Holder, testified before the Commission in support of the amendments. As the representitive of the Department of Justice, his comments are very influential on the Commission. In fact, because of the justice departments stance, Holder immediately issued a directive to all Unnitd States Attoneys to immediately ask federal judges to allow a two point reduction of the base offense levels on drug cases prosecuted in federal courts. I was representing a client who may benefit from this directive before the Chief Judge of the Eastern District of Michigan about a week after the directive. Because the amendment is just a proposal at this time and would not take effect until November of this year, the Chief Judge took issue with the attorney general attempting to change the law before it actually took effect. The directive was intended to ensure that all persons entering pleas before the amendment took effect did not have to request retroactivity which may or may not be available. If my client were not to benefit from this base offense level amendment, it may discourage a plea until November so that he could save himself a year in prison.
The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act elimiteated the large disparity between crack and poweder coaine in federal drug sentencing but the legislature did not make the reduction retroactive. The Attorney General’s police directive seeks to qualify as mandy defendants as possible for the reduction.
Even if the commission adopts the amendments in November, the average federal drug sentence will be four years which is not insignificant. While drug sentenecs are still high, the trend is headed in the right direction.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons supports the Amendment. Nearly 40 percent of federal prisoners and 60 percent of state prisoners reoffend or violate the terms of their supervised release within three years. The money saved by lower sentences can be used for effective reentry progrmming.
Thankfully the Unites States Sentencing Commission and the Attorney General recognize the generational change in drug offenders realizing that lengthy prison sentences are not necessary to ensure the American Public. The commissions proposed amendments will save money, allow for more effective spending on programs and keep minorities from being disproportionately sentenced to unnecessary and ineffecteive incarceration.