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Dan Liljenquist: Smarter Sentencing Act

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Smarter Sentencing Act does not repeal mandatory sentences, but allows federal judges some flexibility in sentencing certain non-violent drug offenders below existing mandatory minimums.

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Someday I would like to better understand how Congress comes up with bill names. Some bill titles are obviously just meant to raise awareness of a Congressman’s particular pet peeve, such as the 1997 Stark Naked Act (or more accurately the No Private Contracts to Be Negotiated When the Patient Is Buck Naked Act), which would have made it illegal for doctors to get patients to agree to charges while they were disrobed in the exam room. While other bills titles are clearly intended to spice up decidedly uninteresting topics, such as the 2011 HAPPY Act (or the Humanity and Pets Partnering through the Years Act), which would have made pet-care expenses tax deductible. Then there are bills whose titles are pure spin, designed to sway public opinion in favor of the controversial policies they enact, such as the PATRIOT Act or the Affordable Care Act.

Occasionally, bills are put forward with names that perfectly match the policies they address. The Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illi, is just such an example. I am hopeful, optimistic even, that Senators Lee and Durbin will successfully shepherd this bi-partisan, common-sense bill through, perhaps, the most dysfunctional Congress in decades. Should they succeed (and I believe they will), it will be a notable achievement.

Legislators love to be “tough on crime”, as well they should be. But over the years, being tough on crime has led to the overly formulaic, and somewhat lazy process of codifying mandatory minimum sentences into criminal codes. Since the 1980s, the number of federal mandatory sentences has doubled, while we’ve experienced a 500 percent increase in federal inmates (with close to 50 percent serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses), and an 1100 percent increase in the costs of federal incarcerations. By being “tough on crime” through mandatory sentences, legislators have strained the corrections system, compromised the safety of both prison guards and inmates, and diverted precious resources from law enforcement and crime prevention towards incarcerations. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity, and it is costing us about $29,000 per year to lock-up each federal inmate. Incarceration and detention costs eat up nearly a third of the Department of Justice’s discretionary budget, squeezing the resources available for other mission critical activities. More than 60 percent of federal district court judges believe that all of the mandatory minimum sentences they are required to impose are too high.

I agree with Senators Lee and Durbin that we need to be smarter about our federal sentencing practices. The Smarter Sentencing Act does not repeal mandatory sentences, but allows federal judges some flexibility in sentencing certain non-violent drug offenders below existing mandatory minimums. The bill also promotes sentencing consistent with the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. It allows those inmates who received disproportionately harsh sentences for possessing crack cocaine to petition the courts for an individualized review of their case. These modest changes to the federal sentencing guidelines will relieve pressure on our federal Department of Justice budget, on our criminal justice system and on our federal prisons. It will also alleviate the pressure on our federal judges who have been forced to lock away non-violent drug offenders for years when they might have been better served with less time behind bars and more time in treatment facilities.

I am hopeful that the Smarter Sentencing Act will help rebalance our criminal justice system. I am also hopeful that this bi-partisan legislation will help break the partisan gridlock we’ve experienced over the past several years.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.

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