After years of deliberation, negotiation and stagnation, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has crafted a bill that favors rehabilitation over incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. Always conscious of costs, the authors, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, are proposing no new spending. On the contrary, they say: In the long run, the bill will save money by reducing the number of offenders in prisons and lowering the rate and risk of recidivism.
The bill targets the mandatory sentencing system that has sent nonviolent offenders to prison for minor drug charges. The three strikes rule — requiring mandatory life sentences for three-time nonviolent offenders — has proved especially onerous.
Overall, the harsher sentences that were a major component of the country’s “war on drugs” have proved costly and ineffective. As one advocate for reform said, when these low-level offenders are released from prison, they are not better citizens; they are better criminals. We have been spending a lot of money without getting what we are paying for: namely, improved public safety, the advocate added.
The proposed approach would include more discretion for judges, more leeway with regard to mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The bill would also change the enhanced sentences for repeat drug offenders currently included in the guidelines.
For those who are already behind bars, the bill would require regular assessments designed to determine the likelihood of their reoffending. If they are deemed low-risk, they would be able to shave 10 days off their sentences for every 30 days spent in existing rehabilitation programs. They may also be released early if they participate in a community-based program under the supervision of authorities.
Not every offender will qualify. If the assessment shows a high risk of recidivism, nothing will change. However, if the high-risk inmate participates in rehabilitation programs or obtains a prison job, the risk could decline over time. The assessments would be conducted on a regular basis.
Also, of course, violent offenders and offenders convicted of more serious drug crimes will not be eligible for any of these benefits.
Because of the bill’s bipartisan support, commentators expect it to pass the Senate without incident. The House, however, could be another story.
Source: Chicago Tribune, “Bill to reduce sentences of nonviolent drug offenders has … bipartisan support?” Oct. 1, 2015