While the Obama administration has spent the past several months rolling out piecemeal sentencing reforms for non-violent drug offenders, states have already taken a hatchet to mandatory minimum sentencing, according to a new report.
“Backed by decades of research demonstrating that longer sentences have only a marginal effect in reducing recidivism and that many offenders can be safely and more effectively supervised in the community, more and more states are revisiting tough-on-crime sentencing policies in pursuit of a fairer, more cost efficient justice system,” said Peggy McGarry, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice.
A new Vera Institute of Justice report shows that since 2000, 29 states have enacted laws increasing judicial discretion and revising when and how sentences are handed down. Thirty-two bills have been passed within the past five years alone, according to the report. States, the report shows, are becoming champions of reform, acting ahead of both Congress and the Obama administration.
“Fueled by a concern about the growth in prison populations and associated costs, and supported by advocacy groups, practitioners, researchers, policy analysts, and legal organizations, a growing number of state legislatures from Texas to New York have successfully passed laws limiting the use of mandatory penalties,” the report reads. “Mostly in relation to nonviolent offenses, and primarily around drug or drug-related offenses.”
The federal government is working to make similar roll-backs on mandatory minimum sentences, which civil rights groups blame for the exploding prison population in recent decades. Last August, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines to judges over the use of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. In January, the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared a path forward for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses and retroactively apply existing reforms.
Though there is little research on the impact of such reforms, some states have already noticed a reduction in prison cost and population, according to the new report. In Michigan, where mandatory minimum sentences were eliminated in 2002, the state closed 20 prisons and lowered correctional spending by 8.9 percent over eight years. But the impact of the reforms could be narrow in the cases where only low-level and non-violent offenders are impacted. And some organizations have griped about the potential for some laws and proposed measures—including the Smarter Sentencing Act—to add more mandatory minimums when violent crimes occur, particularly sexual assault. “We cannot overlook the fact that more than 60 percent of federal district court judges agree that existing mandatory minimums for all offenses are too high,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a blog post.