Lighter Prison Sentences for Nonviolent Drug Crimes

A Senate bill would shorten sentences for nonviolent drug crimes

S. 1410 Smarter Sentencing Act
The Essentials
1. Over the past 30 years the number of federal prison inmates has risen more than 500 percent, largely because of Reagan-era mandatory minimum drug sentences for crack cocaine possession that locked up thousands of low-level, nonviolent offenders. The Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored by Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, is part of a movement in recent years to dial back those laws by releasing nonviolent prisoners and reducing federal penalties for some drug crimes.

2. The legislation builds on a 2010 law, the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the disparity between the punishments for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The bill would cut in half mandatory 10- and 20-year terms for some lesser federal drug crimes and give judges limited discretion to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum. It would also make the FSA retroactive, allowing prisoners convicted of nonviolent crack-related crimes before 2010 to ask for reduced sentences.

3. The Obama administration is also rethinking drug penalties. In August, Attorney General Eric Holder said federal prosecutors won’t charge small-time drug offenders with crimes that trigger the most punitive sentences. In January, Deputy Attorney General James Cole called for the early release of convicts serving “excessive” jail time. Those with clean prison records who aren’t a public threat, he said, should have “an opportunity to get a fresh start.”

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