The League joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights on a letter to Senators Grassley and Leahy of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee urging their support for S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013. The legislation will address several of the causes for the unsustainable and unnecessary growth in the federal prison population by helping to reduce lengthy sentences for certain people convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

 


 

December 16, 2013

Support the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 (S.1410)

The Honorable Patrick J. Leahy                       The Honorable Charles E. Grassley
Chairman                                                         Ranking Member
United States Senate                                       United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary                             Committee on the Judiciary
224 Dirksen Senate Office Building                 224 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510                                   Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Grassley,

On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the undersigned organizations, we urge you to support the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 (S. 1410), introduced by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). This bill will address several of the causes for the unsustainable and unnecessary growth in the federal prison population by helping to reduce lengthy sentences for certain people convicted of non- violent drug offenses. Stakeholders from across the political spectrum agree that this critical legislation must be included in any criminal justice reform bill that is marked up by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

S. 1410 takes an incremental approach to modernizing drug sentencing policy.  The legislation would:

  • Expand the existing federal “safety valve”: The safety valve is one of the only means for a judge to sentence below a mandatory minimum in appropriate cases.  This bill would make more non-violent drug offenders eligible for the safety valve, thus allowing judges to use more discretion to determine sentences.
  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses: The bill would lower existing mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, which would help alleviate the growth of prison costs and overcrowding.
  • Apply the Fair Sentencing Act to those currently serving sentences for drug offenses:

The bill would allow individuals to petition courts for a review of their case based on the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which was enacted in 2010.  The FSA reduced the sentencing disparity that existed between crack and powder cocaine offenses. However, some individuals are still serving sentences that Congress has determined to be unjust and racially disparate.  In 2007 and 2011, federal courts successfully reviewed some crack cocaine sentences based on changes to the Sentencing Guidelines.  This legislation would allow individuals to have their sentence reviewed by courts to determine if they deserve a sentence consistent with current law.

U.S. Sentencing Commission conducted a review of mandatory minimum sentencing policies in which it found that they disproportionately impact communities of color. The report determined that Hispanic offenders accounted for 38.3 percent of those convicted with a mandatory minimum, Black offenders 31.5 percent, White offenders 27.4 percent, and “other race” offenders 2.7 percent.1 The study also showed that Black offenders received relief from mandatory minimum sentences least often, compared with White, Hispanic, and Other Race offenders. Finally, it found racial disparities in the percentage of all federal offenders who were subject to a mandatory minimum penalty sentencing, with Black offenders subject to the highest rate of any racial group at 65.1 percent of their cases, followed by Whites at 53.5 percent, Hispanics at 44.3 percent, and Other Races at 41.1 percent.

In addition to the racial disparities, mandatory minimum sentences are the leading contributor to our burgeoning federal prison population and the increased economic costs to our national budget.  In 1980, the federal prison population was approximately 25,000 people, but since then it has grown exponentially by a rate of 790 percent.  Currently, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has custody of nearly 219,000 people. The agency’s facilities are operating at almost 40 percent over capacity. The President’s FY 2014 budget request for BOP was $6.9 billion, accounting for more than 25 percent of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) entire budget. According to a November 2013 report by the Urban Institute, if enacted, the Smarter Sentencing Act could save taxpayers more than 3 billion over 10 years.2 These cost savings could free up valuable resources needed to assist key public safety initiatives, such as re-entry and recidivism reduction programs, crime prevention and treatment programs, and other grant programs targeted to vulnerable populations.

Several reports have concluded that mandatory minimum sentences are a major contributor to the growing federal prison population.3 Research by the Urban Institute also found that increases in expected time served, specifically for drug offenses, contributed to half of the prison population growth between 1998 and 2010.4 A 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) concluded that the increase in the amount of time people were expected to serve was the result of people receiving longer sentences and being required to serve approximately 85 percent of their sentences after Congress eliminated parole for federal prisoners.5 The increased time served by drug offenders accounted for almost one-third of the total federal prison population growth between 1998 and 2010.6 Currently, people convicted of drug offenses make up 50 percent of the BOP population.7 These statistics illustrate the need to move away from the “tough on crime” laws and focus more on “smart on crime” policies.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a much needed first step to creating a fairer criminal justice system, while also addressing the serious safety and budgetary problems that exist in BOP. We urge you to support this legislation when the bill is marked up by the Senate Judiciary Committee. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Sakira Cook at  cook@civilrights.org or (202) 263-2894 or Nancy Zirkin at zirkin@civilrights.org or (202) 263-2880. Thank you for your consideration of this critical legislation.

Sincerely,

 

ACLU
AFL-CIO
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Community Action Partnership
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
CURE-Women Incarcerated
Drug Policy Alliance
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Gamaliel
Human Rights Watch
International Community Corrections Association
Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) Justice Strategies
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
NAACP
National Action Network (NAN)
National Association of Social Workers
National Employment Law Project
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
National Health Care for the Homeless Council
National Urban League (NUL)
Ourtime.org
Prison Policy Initiative
Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
Service Employees International Union (SEIU)
StoptheDrugWar.org
The Japanese American Citizens League
The League of Women Voters of the United States
The Sentencing Project
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
Unitarian Universalist Association


 

1 U.S.S.C. Report to Congress, Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, October

2011. Retrieved September 17, 2013, available at http://www.ussc.gov/Legislative_and_Public_Affairs/Congressional_Testimony_and_Reports/Mandatory_Minimum

_Penalties/20111031_RtC_PDF/Executive_Summary.pdf .

2 Nancy LaVigne, Julie Samuels, Samuel Taxy, Urban Institute, Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System, pg. 3-5 (2013). The report concludes that reduction in mandatory minimums would account for $2.5 billion, FSA retroactivity would account for $229 million, and expanded safety valve accounts for $544 million in savings over 10 years.

3 Nancy LaVigne, Julie Samuels, Urban Institute The Growth & Increasing Cost of the Federal Prison System:

Drivers and Potential Solutions pgs.1-2 (2012) (hereinafter LaVigne Urban Institute Report).

4 LaVigne Urban Institute Report at 5.

5 Nathan James, Congressional Research Service, The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy

Changes, Issues, and Options pg. 8 (January 22, 2013).

6 Kamala Mallik-Kane, Barbara Parthasarathy, William Adams, Examining Growth in the

Federal Prison Population, 1998 to 2010, pg. 3 (2012).

7 Federal Bureau of Prisons Website, Quick Facts,  http://www.bop.gov/news/quick.jsp, (December 4, 2013).