Toward Dismantling America's Incarceration Fixation

Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-VA)

Many states can no longer afford to support public education, public benefits, public services without doing something about the exorbitant costs that mass incarceration have created.
- Bryan Stevenson founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

A few years ago, the NAACP released a new report, Misplaced Priorities, that examines America's escalating levels of prison spending and its impact on state budgets and our nation’s children, according to

Misplaced Priorities tracks the steady shift of state funds away from education and toward the criminal justice system. Researchers have found that over-incarceration most often impacts vulnerable and minority populations, and that it destabilizes communities.

The report includes these startling facts:

• The majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails are people of color, people with mental health issues and drug addiction, people with low levels of educational attainment, and people with a history of unemployment or underemployment.

• The nation’s reliance on incarceration to respond to social and behavioral health issues is evidenced by the large numbers of people who are incarcerated for drug offenses. Among people in federal prisons, people in local jails, and young people held in the nation’s detention centers and local secure facilities, more than 500,000 people— nearly a quarter of all those incarcerated—are incarcerated as the result of a drug conviction.

• During the last two decades, as the criminal justice system came to assume a larger proportion of state discretionary dollars, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education.

Thus, I was pleased to see Reps. Raúl Labrador (R-ID) and Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-VA), authors of H.R. 3382, the Smarter Sentencing Act, commending the Senate Judiciary Committee for approving S. 1410, the Senate version of the bill.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would reform criminal sentencing laws, empowering judges to make individualized assessments in nonviolent drug cases. This would ensure that limited resources are focused on the most serious offenders, while maintaining public safety.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee’s passage of the bill today is a step forward on this important legislation," said Scott.

“Granting federal judges more discretion in sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses is the right thing to do. Studies of mandatory minimums conclude that they fail to reduce crime, they waste the taxpayers’ money, and they often require the imposition of sentences that violate common sense. This bipartisan, bicameral bill targets particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returns discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner," Scott continued.

"While the Senate Judiciary Committee's action today is an important step in updating sentencing policies that are not working, the amended bill, unfortunately, includes three new mandatory minimums," Scott added.

"If this amended bill passes, we will end up with more mandatory minimums than we started with. The primary purpose of this legislation was to reduce the negative impact of mandatory minimums since they cost taxpayers too much and do nothing to make our families and communities safer. I hope the House Judiciary Committee will act on the original version of the bill."

Raul Labrador (R-ID)

Labrador said he was pleased that momentum continues to build for this common-sense bipartisan legislation.

“There is a growing realization that the ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ to criminal sentencing has tied the hands of judges, hurt the cause of justice, and increased the burden on taxpayers, without making us safer. I appreciate the Senate Judiciary Committee for acting quickly and effectively, and I will keep working with my colleagues in both the House and the Senate to get this bill passed through Congress and become the law of the land.”

During the past 30 years, the number of inmates in federal custody has grown by 500 percent, with nearly half of them serving sentences for drug offenses. Spending on federal incarceration has grown by more than 1100 percent. Today, it costs about $29,000 per year to house just one federal inmate. The Smarter Sentencing Act could save up to $1 billion in incarceration costs.

The House-version of the Smarter Sentencing Act would do the following:

Increase individualized review for certain drug sentences

It would lower certain drug mandatory sentences, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply (while not repealing any mandatory minimum sentences or lowering the maximum sentences for these offenses).

Promote sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act

It would allow certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law, while not automatically reducing a single sentence.

Expand the existing federal “safety valve”

The legislative “safety valve” has been effective in allowing federal judges to appropriately sentence certain non-violent drug offenders below existing mandatory minimums. Today’s bill would modestly broaden criteria for eligibility.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is endorsed by Heritage Action; Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries; ACLU; American Correctional Association; American Bar Association; NAACP; Constitution Project; and other organizations across the ideological spectrum.

SOURCE: Official Website of Robert C. "Bobby" Scott.