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The Smarter Sentencing Act – Could this be the beginning of the end to mass incarceration?

The Smarter Sentencing Act
For 30 years, a “tough on crime” mentality among lawmakers in every state and nationally harnessed our society, leaving in its wake an increasingly complex maze of punishment. As a result, we marched unparalleled numbers of our population through the doors of this maze, with little hope or expectation of exit.

According to the Pew Research Center:  63% of Americans say that the states’ move away from mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes is a good thing (p. 8); two-thirds say that treatment, not jail, should be the solution for heroin and cocaine users . As more than half of all prisoners in the United States include those who were charged with drug offenses, this statistic shows that even the American public recognizes the current system simply does not work.

The Smarter Sentencing Act requires the Attorney General to report on how the reduced expenditures on federal corrections and cost savings resulting from this Act will be used to help reduce overcrowding, increase investment in law enforcement and crime prevention, and reduce recidivism.  It could spell the beginning of the end to mass incarceration, as Attorney General Eric Holder has been able to talk honestly about an issue that has rendered too many too silent for too long. In sentiments that would have likely run him out of town less than a decade ago, he is now speaking the unadorned truth: “This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable. It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.” He is backing up his words with action on the federal level, encouraging others to take on similar state-level reforms.

The Act:

  • Amends the federal criminal code to direct the court to impose a sentence for specified controlled substance offenses without regard to any statutory minimum sentence if the court finds that the criminal history category for the defendant is not higher than category two (under current law, that the defendant does not have more than one criminal history point).
  • Authorizes a court that imposed a sentence for a crack cocaine possession or trafficking offense committed before August 3, 2010, on motion of the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the government, or the court, to impose a reduced sentence as if provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time such offense was committed.
  • Amends the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act (CSIEA) to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, possessing, importing, or exporting specified controlled substances.
  • Directs the Commission to review and amend its guidelines and policy statements applicable to persons convicted of such an offense under the CSA and CSIEA to ensure consistency with this Act and to consider specified factors, including: (1) its mandate to formulate guidelines to minimize the likelihood that the federal prison population will exceed federal prison capacity, (2) fiscal implications of changes, (3) relevant public safety concerns, (4) the intent of Congress that penalties for violent and serious drug traffickers who present public safety risks remain appropriately severe, and (5) the need to reduce and prevent racial disparities in sentencing.


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Religious leaders urge Congress supporting reform of drug cases

More than 1,100 religious leaders from 40 faith groups have endorsed a letter to Congress this month in support of a reform bill on federal drug cases.

Faith communities fear that long sentences for drug offenses will negatively affect individuals, families and communities, the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group said in a press release. The Smarter Sentencing Act (S 1410/HR 3382) proposes reducing mandatory-minimum sentences for federal drug offenses, which would address prison overcrowding, and is currently awaiting a Senate vote.

There are currently more than 217,000 federal prisoners, the press release notes, nearly half of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses.

The interfaith group of leaders includes Roman Catholics, Jews, Evangelical Protestants and Mainline Protestants who come from nearly all 50 states.

Here is the letter:

Dear Senators Reid and McConnell and Representatives Boehner and Pelosi:

As clergy and faith leaders from a diversity of beliefs, we believe in the inherent dignity of all people. We believe the criminal justice system should treat people, regardless of their offense, justly and humanely. We call on you to uphold these principles by supporting and passing the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1410/H.R. 3382.

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress passed legislation creating excessive mandatory-minimum penalties for many low-level and non-violent drug offenses. The result was a dramatic increase in the federal prison population that is both expensive and counterproductive. Today over 217,000 men and women are warehoused in over-crowded federal institutions, families are split apart, lives have been wasted, and drug abuse and addiction continues to plague our communities.

A national conversation has begun to address the nationwide incarceration crisis and change in state sentencing policy has resulted. In the last decade, 17 states around the country reduced their incarceration rates and saw continued declines in crime rates. It is now time for Congress to act.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is an incremental approach to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of low-level and non-violent drug offenses. The bill would also apply the bipartisan 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which lowered sentences for the lowest-level cases involving crack cocaine, to people currently in prison under the old sentencing structure. About 8,800 people, with 88% of them being African American, would be eligible to apply to a judge for a sentence reduction. The legislation also slightly expands the federal “safety valve” exception, allowing judges to sentence below a drug mandatory-minimum if numerous mitigating qualifications are met.

For too long, Congress has ignored the consequences of the harsh sentencing policies it approved during the 1980s and the disproportionate harm it has caused people of color and those convicted of low-level offenses. We are reminded that Scripture commands us, “Justice, and only justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step towards addressing racial injustice as well as reducing mass incarceration that characterizes our current justice system.

Passage of this legislation can help bring relief to members of our congregations and faith communities and we strongly urge you to pursue justice and to support the Smarter Sentencing Act.