A report issued last week by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General found that the federal prison population has increased so rapidly over the past dozen years that the high costs of housing all of those convicts is draining the agency’s budgets for fighting crime, combatting terrorism and protecting Americans’ civil rights.
The US leads the world in imprisoning its citizens, and one of the reasons for that are our long mandatory minimum sentences for those caught up in the drug war. Awareness of the costs of these policies — in human as well as budgetary terms — has been increasing in recent years. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which addressed a significant disparity in the punishments meted out for those possessing crack and powder cocaine. Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new prosecutorial guidelines in an effort to cut down on the number of nonviolent drug offenders facing long periods of incarceration.
Today, Charlie Savage reports for The New York Times that the Obama administration offered some immediate relief to some of those people serving sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes. Savage writes:
President Obama, expanding his push to curtail severe penalties for drug offenses, on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison.
It was the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who most likely would have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies.
Most of the eight will be released in 120 days.
In a statement, Mr. Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including under a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
The recipients include several high-profile inmates who have received news media attention as examples of the effects of earlier tough-on-crime drug sentencing policies, in which the quantities of crack involved sometimes resulted in severe punishments. Many of them were young at the time of their offense and were not accused of violence.