Advocates of loosening minimum mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders can quickly spout off a laundry list of evidence to support their case.
First, the federal prison system is bursting at its seams with 21 times more inmates than it housed a mere 30 years ago. The colossal increase largely stems from get-tough minimum- sentencing standards enacted in recent decades as part of this nation’s war on drugs.
At the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton in Columbiana County, for example, the inmate population is about 2,400, up considerably in the past few years. An inmate civil-rights lawsuit on prison crowding there was filed in Federal District Court in Youngstown this spring.
Second, the costs to taxpayers soars. At $30,000 per prisoner, Americans must dole out approximately $3 billion yearly for the care of the 100,549 drug offenders housed in federal prisons, as of June 28.
Third many believe that the beefed-up sentencing guidelines err too far on the side of cruelty and intolerance toward mostly low-level inmates.
ARGUMENTS HAVE MERIT
All of those arguments wield some merit. That’s why the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s unanimous decision earlier this month to give nearly 50,000 inmates the chance to reduce their drug sentences by one to two years holds promise.
“Today seven people unanimously decided to change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Federal judges, prosecutors and public opinion have all gravitated toward support for less incarceration and more treatment for low-level nonviolent drug offenders.
But the relaxed standards wisely are not binding on judges. Each of the tens of thousands of prisoners’ requests for early release must be reviewed by judges before freedom is granted. If a judge determines that the prisoner’s propensity to harm outweighs the potential decline in overcrowding and costs to taxpayers, the request can and should be denied.
Simply stated, public safety must never take a back seat to small savings in the public treasury.