Last week, the conservative corporate-backed group that advanced Stand Your Ground laws reversed its previous support for mandatory minimum sentences and endorsed reform to curb their use. On Monday, the country’s top law enforcement official said he would order all of his prosecutors to avert mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.
And Wednesday, the world’s largest association for correctional officers became the latest unlikely proponent of criminal justice reform, passing its own resolution to “eliminate” mandatory minimum sentences.
“ACA’s members know from long and first-hand experience that crowding within correctional systems increases violence, threatens overall security within a facility, and hampers rehabilitation efforts,” American Corrections Association President Chris Epps said in a statement accompanying the resolution. As an alternative to eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, the resolution endorses both federal and state bills that give judges more discretion to lower onerous prison terms for drug and other offenses. Epps explains:
Prisons are full of nonviolent offenders serving lengthy and mandatory minimum sentences. Our members work hard every day to keep staff, inmates, and the public safe, but the current system is unsustainable. The solution must come from lawmakers, and it must target the long sentences that got us in this mess in the first place. Legislators, prosecutors and judges need to differentiate between who we are afraid of and who we are just mad at and then sentence each appropriately.
Judges, who often have no discretion to lower sentences dictated by a particular criminal charge, have long lamented that low-level drug offenders are given sentences meant for kingpins, to the detriment of those individual offenders, and perpetuating the cycle of mass incarceration. As the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed to eclipse that of any other country in the world, both liberals and conservatives are coming around to the untenable cost in both money and lives of, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described it, imprisoning “too many Americans” in “too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
Versions of the “Justice Safety Valve Act” endorsed by ACA have been introduced by bipartisan coalitions in both houses of Congress, and endorsed by ALEC as models for states. The concept of the bill is that it gives judges a “safety valve” to sentence below statutory mandatory minimum in order to prevent an “unjust sentence.“
Reforming mandatory minimums is one of several measures in the works to alleviate the U.S. epidemic of mass incarceration. In his remarks Monday, Holder called for more discretion by prosecutors in charging offenders, and announced several other initiatives to reduce the federal prison population, including leaving some crimes to the discretion of state law enforcers, increasing reliance on drug courts, and expanding the “compassionate release” program that allows the early release of some elderly prisoners. Two other bills in Congress would also facilitate early release of some low-level offenders, and make retroactive a 2010 law that narrowed the racist disparity between crack and cocaine sentences.
While moves toward what is known as “smart” on crime rather than “tough on crime” are proliferating in several more conservative states, California continues to resist court orders to alleviate its unconstitutional prison overcrowding.
Officials in prisons are directly affected by the safety hazards of overcrowded prisons. But they also stand to lose jobs if the prison population decreases, making their endorsement all-the-more remarkable. And it begs the question: If corrections officers, the country’s top prosecutor, and the conservative group with a history of strong ties to private prisons are all in favor of mandatory minimum reform, is there any remaining momentum against it?