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Smarter Sentencing Act moves away from mandatory minimums

Senate Judiciary Committee meeting in early 2013
Senate Judiciary Committee meeting in early 2013
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Recently the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act. The act seeks to reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences in order to reduce the prison population, save on the costs of incarceration, and decrease the racial disparities that have long been associated with mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and application.

The bill brings together a strange set of bedfellows, as its cosponsors include both conservatives like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Democrats like Kirsten Gillibrand, Dick Durbin, and Carl Levin. The committee passed the bill on Jan. 30, 2014, although in order to become law it must now pass the Senate and the House before being signed by the President.

In addition to lowering the mandatory minimums for federal drug sentences, the bill would address the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Despite reforms in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, there is still a vast difference in the severity of sentences for crack versus cocaine. Currently the possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine is enough to draw a 5-year mandatory minimum, while with powder cocaine it takes 500 grams to draw the same mandatory minimum sentence. Given the prevalence of crack in urban areas, in practice this sentencing disparity has helped perpetuate racist drug policy.

Although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder voiced his support for sentencing reform, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys said, "We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction. Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence as well-constructed and well worth preserving."

Preserving this system would entail preserving the systemic racism that has haunted this nation's sentencing structure and created a system of mass incarceration in which 46 percent of those convicted for drug offenses are African-American despite the fact that African-Americans comprise only 13 percent of drug users. If current trends continue and this much-needed sentencing reform fails to pass, one in every three black males born today can expect to be incarcerated at some point in his life.