A group of national lawmakers are working to eliminate the use of the federal prison system for minor drug offenders, submitting a proposal earlier this week aimed at designating these facilities for serious offenders only. On Thursday, Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Bobby Scott of Virginia introduced a bill that some are calling one of the most groundbreaking pieces of sentencing reform to ever be considered in the United States.
The bill, which is called the “Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015,” would begin to chip away at the federal prison crisis across the nation—a problem that has manifested over a 500-percent upsurge in incarceration rates over the past few decades. The goal of the latest measure is to do away with federal sentences for minor drug possession by allowing those cases to be dealt with on a state-by-state basis. It also seeks to put restrictions on mandatory minimums, setting aside these penalties for major drug traffickers, while only applying “life sentences” for the most abominable cases. The bill would also expand on compassionate release programs for low-risk elderly and terminally ill offenders.
The SAFE Act simply begs the reduction of over-federalization and over-criminalization by providing more flexibility between state and federal law when it comes to prosecuting drug-related crime. The proposal encompasses numerous factors, ranging from the creation of a citizen complaint process to establishing probationary sentences, all in an effort to diminish prison overcrowding and to save citizens billions of dollars.
“Taxpayers will pour $6.9 billion into the Bureau of Prisons this year, with substantial increases each year into the foreseeable future unless Congress fixes the system,” former U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich and political activist Pat Nolan wrote in The Washington Times. “The inspector general of the Department of Justice has said that this level of spending is ‘unsustainable.’ Federal prisons are squeezing out spending for counterterrorism agencies, victim services, the FBI, and other important crime-fighting initiatives.”
Perhaps most importantly, this bill would ensure that citizens who buy drugs on the black market would no longer be in violation of federal law. Offenders would simply be held accountable under the statutes of their respective state. This combined with the reduction of mandatory minimum sentences, in theory, could be sufficient enough to drastically reduce the number of people stuck in U.S. penitentiaries for drug crimes.
“Today, we know what works in the correctional field and what doesn’t, and the debate is no longer about whether we need reform,” Gingrich and Nolan continued. “There is bipartisan consensus that reforms are imperative. Now is the time for conservatives to lead the charge.”
This legislation has bipartisan backing, as well as the support of all of the usual suspects, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the American Civil Liberties Union.