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Senator Attacks Shorter Drug Sentences, Flunks Math

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

This month, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that reforming federal drug laws to reduce draconian sentences would save $4 billion in just the first ten years. The Department of Justice has projected even greater savings of $7.4 billion.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) didn’t mention any of that when he issued a press release this week citing potential increased costs of the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act. “Sentencing Bill Puts Taxpayers On The Hook For Another Billion Dollars,” the headline blares. Grassley cites costs of $1 billion in potential public benefits for inmates who are released — without factoring in the $4 billion-plus savings that will more than cover that cost. “The ‘smarter’ in the bill title clearly doesn’t mean ‘smarter’ budgeting or crime reduction,” Grassley says. His reasoning, essentially, is that we shouldn’t set these individuals free, because they might access health care and food stamps, and then cost the government some money.

But it’s Grassley who isn’t doing the math. The CBO breaks it down like this. The Smarter Sentencing Act will save $4 billion in prison costs, largely by facilitating shorter drug sentences and reducing a federal prison population that has grown 780 percent since 1980. The CBO notes that much of that savings comes from the health and food costs the government is alreading bearing for every single person in prison. When inmates are released early, they will also cost the government some money if they access health care programs and food stamps. This could cost the government $1 billion. In other words, the government is already paying food and health care costs for inmates. If those inmates are released, the government would reap significant savings, but some of them might still access some health care and food services that cost the government money, but a lot less money, and generate net savings of more than $2.9 billion in just the first ten years.

The press release has only one vague line that addresses this cost disparity: “Grassley said the bill’s high price tag comes on the entitlement side which is far more dangerous than the dollars that proponents say may be saved on the appropriations ledger.” It doesn’t explain why “entitlements” are more “dangerous.”

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The aim of the Smarter Sentencing Act is to reform War-on-Drug era laws that bind judges to sentences that start at 5 or 10 years and ratchet up quickly from there. Many federal judges have lamented that the sentencing scheme treats low-level offenders like kingpins, and gives judges no discretion to adjust sentences depending on the circumstance. And these analyses don’t even factor in the societal and moral costs of keeping tens of thousands of drug offenders behind bars even when it does not improve public safety.

Nor do they factor in that assisting recently released inmates with basic public needs is correlated with a reduced chance of their return to prison, and increase the likelihood that they develop stable lives and employment outside of prison. In fact, one of the stated goals of the Smarter Sentencing Act is to use the monetary savings to “help reduce overcrowding in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, increase investment in law enforcement and crime prevention, and reduce recidivism.”

Even Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently endorsed the Smarter Sentencing Act as a poverty solution, noting in his 2014 poverty plan that, “There are also economic and social consequences to unreasonably long sentences. Not only do they put undue burdens on families, but they may actually make people more likely to return to crime.”

Ryan is only the most recent Republican in Congress to endorse reform of mandatory minimum laws. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) co-sponsored the Senate’s Smarter Sentencing Act bill with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Rep. Paul Labrador (R-ID) co-sponsored the House bill with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). Other pairs of bipartisan lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have sponsored other similar sentencing reform bills. Also supporting sentencing reform is the prominent conservative corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, which for years advocated mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws. On the law enforcement front, judges, prosecutors, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and even the world’s largest correctional association have come out in support of sentencing reform. Standing with Grassley is a small contingent of law enforcement organizations.