Last year, prisoners’ rights advocates, defense lawyers, and maybe [hopefully] even some prosecutors anxiously waited for the US Congress to act on the widely supported “Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014,” but it never happened. On February 12, 2015, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 was re-introduced with the support of several senators from both sides of the aisle. While the text of the 2015 bill is not online quite yet, it is presumably the same as the 2014 text.
What is the Smarter Sentencing Act?
Basically, the Smarter Sentencing Act provides a safety valve to limit the draconian mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent, low-level drug offenders. For example, as the law stands now, a federal drug defendant with a single previous felony drug conviction (state or federal) who is convicted of possessing with intent to distribute just 28 grams of crack faces a mandatory minimum ten-year prison sentence, regardless of his or her Sentencing Guideline range. Without the mandatory minimum, the Guidelines would apply. By comparison, most defendants with a single prior felony would face a much lower sentence for the same “low-level” conduct.
The Act also modifies and reduces the mandatory minimums set forth in 21 USC 841, reducing, for example the ten-year sentence for the above-described defendant, to five years. (See bill text at Sec. 4).
I don’t know any prisoners, so why do I care?
Lately, prison conditions, prisoner rights, and prison budgets have been the focus of renewed media attention. Public opinion tends to support the notion that incarcerating non-violent, low-level offenders for decades is not necessary, especially when we’re paying for it! So in that vein, the general law-abiding public would benefit from the Smarter Sentencing Act to the tune of $4 billion dollars between 2015-2024.