Republicans and Democrats are questioning the value of long prison sentences for non-violent crimes, which could upend the War on Drugs.
Ashley Keeton was in a spot.
It was just before Christmas 2011, and she needed cash to make sure her kids had presents under the tree. The young Texas mother decided to get the money by delivering marijuana for a drug dealer. Keeton also decided to have a friend go with her on the delivery, and the friend would get to share some of the $5K Keeton would make for doing the job. The problem was things went wrong, and Keeton ended up in federal custody.
“Ashley received 60 months for her offense, the mandatory minimum sentence based on the amount of drugs found in her vehicle.” Families Against Mandatory Minimums writes in their profile of the soon to be 28-year-old. “She might’ve been eligible for a lighter sentence, but received a sentence enhancement because the prosecution said that arranging the delivery, using her vehicle, and “hiring” her good friend made her a “leader” in the conspiracy.”
There’s something wrong with this picture. Yes, Keeton broke the law. But it seems odd for her to be locked up in prison for five years all because she wanted a friend to come with her on a drug delivery. Keeton wasn’t a hardened drug lord (she’s a first-time offender), and her friend was dealing with her own financial difficulties.
This is the problem with the drug laws in the United States. They don’t allow judges the chance to use discretion in sentencing, especially with offenders who have never broken the law before. FAMM has plenty of other examples of non-violent offenders who are spending decades in prison because of mandatory minimums.
Paul Fields is another someone who doesn’t deserve to be behind bars for 15 years because of drug activity. Fields is considered a “career offender” because he’s got a record, all involving small amounts of drugs. He decided to get back into drugs because of his baby daughter. “It was after the birth of Corrina that Paul, in trying to make ends meet for his growing family, made the poor decision to grow a large amount of marijuana and try to sell it.” FAMM’s profile finds. “Not a single crop had been harvested when police raided Paul’s house and 256 marijuana plants were found…”
It’s stories like this which has caused some people in Congress to get serious about justice reform. Republicans like Jason Chaffetz, Trey Gowdy, Raul Labrador, James Sensenbrenner, and Blake Farenthold are pushing the Sentencing Reform Act, which orders the federal government to reassess the sentence of certain criminals. Democrats John Conyers, Jr., Sheila Jackson Lee, Judy Chu, Jerrold Nadler, Theodore E. Deutch, Suzan DelBene, and David N. Cicilline are also supporting this bill.
Requires the System to provide: (1) tools to classify the recidivism risk level of prisoners and assign appropriate programs, reassess such risk level periodically and make appropriate reassignments, and determine when a prisoner is ready to transfer into pre-release custody; (2) guidance on the programs that should be assigned for each classification of prisoner; (3) incentives and rewards for prisoners to participate in and complete programs, including family phone and visitation privileges, time credits, and transfers into pre-release custody; and (4) guidelines for the Bureau of Prisons to reduce rewards earned by prisoners who violate prison or program rules. Bars prisoners convicted of specified offenses from receiving time credits.
This bill also has the support of groups like FreedomWorks, Faith & Freedom Coalition, R Street Institute, General Opportunity, and Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. These are groups of all shapes and sizes on the Right, who believe it’s fiscally conservative to reduce the $6.7B the federal government spends on prisons.
There are people who will look at this bill and think it’s a bad idea. They consider some of the chaos in California as a reason for why justice reform shouldn’t happen, based on the failure there. California’s justice reform proposal may be extremely lacking, but you cannot ignore the success justice reform has had in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia. Texas has saved $3B since enacting justice reform in 2007, and crime rates are lower than they’ve ever been. The focus on rehabilitation versus incarceration shows reform works.
“But what about federal crime rates?” Justice reform opponents hiss out between clenched teeth. “Mandatory minimums helped keep people safe!”
Research from Right on Crime shows that’s not quite the case. “Undoubtedly, the creation of mandatory minimum sentences and the increased incarceration rates resulting from it had some marginal positive effect on the crime rate, though there is significant debate over the magnitude of that effect,” Joe Luppino-Esposito writes. “Some put the range at 10-25 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, but as crime decreased in the early 2000s, nationwide incarceration rates slowed, and in the ensuing years incarceration rates have dropped.” This is why it doesn’t make sense to spend the billions of dollars the federal government does on prisons.
If Congress does sign off on these justice reform bills, it’s not going to solve every single problem the U.S. has with overincarceration. There still has to be tough discussions on drug legalization, especially marijuana, and whether or not it’s worth continuing the “War on Drugs.” These bills are a good, first step in the right direction. The question is whether or not the federal government is willing to take the first step.