Today, by a vote of 13 to 5, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved what the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) calls "the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades." The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) last July, would cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for some drug offenses, make the reduced crack penalties enacted in 2010 retroactive, and expand the category of defendants eligible for sentencing below the mandatory minimums. "The Smarter Sentencing Act is the most significant piece of criminal justice reform to make it to the Senate floor in several years," says Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office.
The Durbin-Lee bill does not go as far as the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced last March by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Leahy (who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee). That bill would have made mandatory minimums effectively optional by alllowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice. The Smarter Sentencing Act is nevertheless a big improvement. The crack provision alone could free thousands of prisoners serving sentences that almost everyone now concedes are excessively long. It would dramatically reduce the penalties for certain nonviolent drug offenses, changing 20-year, 10-year, and five-year mandatory minimums to 10 years, five years, and two years, respectively. It would allow more nonviolent offenders to escape mandatory minimums entirely by loosening the criteria for the "safety valve," allowing two criminal background points instead of just one.
"Extreme, one-size-fits-all sentencing has caused our federal prison population to balloon out of control," says the ACLU's Murphy, "and it's time to change these laws that destroy lives and waste taxpayer dollars." DPA notes that the Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by "a strange bedfellows group of senators," including Durbin, Lee, Paul, Leahy, Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). "The tide has turned against punitive drug policies that destroy lives and tear families apart," says Bill Piper, DPA's director of national affairs. "From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites, there's now consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers."