Smarter Sentencing Bill Would Reduce Prison Costs by More Than $4 Billion

RELEASE: Lee & Durbin: According to CBO, Smarter Sentencing Bill Would Reduce Prison Costs by More Than $4 Billion

Funding reinvested in law enforcement and crime prevention priorities would make communities safer

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) announced today that their bill tomodernize nonviolent drug sentencing policies would reduce prison costs in America by $4.36 billion over 10 years, according to a new report compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO is the second government agency to conclude that the Durbin-Lee bill would produce billions of dollars in savings.  The Department of Justice, which administers our federal prison system, has estimated that the bill would avoid prison costs of nearly $7.4 billion in 10 years and $24 billion in 20 years.

With federal prison populations skyrocketing and approximately half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, the Smarter Sentencing Act would give federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

“Today’s CBO report proves that not only are mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses often unfair, they are also fiscally irresponsible,” said Durbin.  “By making the incremental, targeted changes that Senator Lee and I have proposed in our Smarter Sentencing Act, we can save taxpayers billions without jeopardizing public safety.  In fact, these aren’t just savings going back to the treasury – this is money that will be invested in law enforcement and crime prevention activities that will make our communities safer.”

“Today’s CBO report is great news,” Lee said.  “It confirms that making smart reforms to our drug sentencing laws will save the taxpayers billions of dollars.  The targeted changes that Senator Durbin and I have proposed to our harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws will strengthen our country by reuniting nonviolent drug offenders who have paid their debt to society more quickly with their families, and the CBO report shows that doing so will cost us less in the long run.”

The United States has seen a 500% increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, in large part due to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster deep distrust of the criminal justice system.

This large increase in prison populations has also put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is more than 30% over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts inmates and guards at risk. There is more than 50% overcrowding at high-security facilities. This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing inmates. It currently costs nearly $30,000 to house just one federal inmate for a year. There are currently about 214,000 inmates in federal custody, approximately half of them serving sentences for drug offenses.

The bipartisan Durbin-Lee bill is an incremental approach that does not abolish any mandatory sentences. Rather, it takes a studied and modest step in modernizing drug sentencing policy by:

  • Modestly expanding the existing federal “safety valve”: Our legislative “safety valve” has been effective in allowing federal judges to appropriately sentence certain non-violent drug offenders below existing mandatory minimums. This safety valve, however, only applies to a narrow subset of cases. The Smarter Sentencing Act would modestly broaden criteria for eligibility. This change, which only applies to certain non-violent drug offenses, is supported by nearly 70% of federal district court judges.
  • Promoting sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act: The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which was authored by Senator Durbin and unanimously passed the Senate before it was signed into law – reduced a decades-long sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Unfortunately, because of the timing of their sentences, some individuals are still serving far-too-lengthy sentences that Congress has already determined are unjust and racially disparate. The Smarter Sentencing Act allows certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law. Federal courts successfully and efficiently conducted similar crack-related sentence reductions after 2007 and 2011 changes to the Sentencing Guidelines. More information on the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 can be found here.
  • Increasing individualized review for certain drug sentences: The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply. The Act does not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences and does not lower the maximum sentences for these offenses. This approach keeps intact a floor at which all offenders with the same drug-related offense will be held accountable but reserves the option to dole out the harshest penalties where circumstances warrant. These changes do not apply to penalties for violent offenses.

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, Major Cities Chiefs Association, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, International Union of Police Associations, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, more than 100 former prosecutors and judges, the NAACP, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Sentencing Project, American Conservative Union, Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Council of Prison Locals, Ralph Reed, Open Society Policy Center, American Correctional Association, the American Bar Association, National Black Prosecutors Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Constitution Project.

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