Many who read this blog and/or are fans of my page (Politically Preposterous) know that I’m an attorney who practices mainly criminal defense (among other things). I’m also a staunch supporter of 4th Amendment rights, repeal of prohibition-style marijuana laws, and fairness in sentencing for other drug offenses. With that being said, on October 16th, I posted a status proposing reducing government spending by reducing our prison population. Specifically, decreasing federal spending by releasing non-violent low level drug offenders. Many people liked this proposal.
Well, later that very evening, I attended my monthly New York County Lawyers Association, Criminal Justice Section meeting and wouldn’t you know, before the government shutdown/debt ceiling fiasco began, there was actually a bipartisan piece of legislation proposed by none other than Tea Party darling Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and Democrats Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410 for those of you who want to read the bill). The proposed Smarter Sentencing Act would modernize drug sentencing policy by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses. The legislation could save taxpayers billions of dollars in just the first few years. It costs approximately $30,000 to house one (1) federal inmate for a year and there are currently over 219,000 federal inmates – over half of which are doing time for low level drug offenses.
With all this being said, despite my strong dislike of Senator Lee’s tactics in the recent budget fiasco, I nonetheless applaud him, Senator Durbin, and Senator Leahy for proposing this important piece of legislation. It is proof that the parties can in fact find common ground and can in fact find ways to reduce federal spending that do not involve gutting programs that help the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. However, my concern is that with the constant state of “crisis” that Washington has been in lately (because they continue to pass “stopgap” budget measures rather than an actual appropriations bill) there will not be time to consider and debate important pieces of legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act – legislation which would not only help to reduce federal spending, but would also help to reduce our prison population and modernize our archaic sentencing policies.
Moreover, while there is a legitimate concern that reducing the prison population will lead to decreased need for corrections officers and layoffs, I believe that we can find ways to deal with this issue. On one hand, if we significantly reduce our prison population to the point where we are closing prisons, it could result in layoffs. On the other hand, this law would only apply to low level offenders and thus we would still be incarcerating many high level traffickers and those who have committed violent offenses, so there would still be a need for corrections officers. Furthermore, although I am unfortunately not in a position of power such that I could make any actual changes to the proposed law, I personally wouldn’t have a problem with the government re-purposing these officers in other areas. In my opinion, the amount of money we would spend employing these officers in other capacities would still be far less than the amount of money we spend housing prisoners.
Additionally, the “prisons for profit” issue is of concern, because the private prison industry will lobby against this measure. However, my hope is that people who, “don’t want the government to tread on them,” will be able to work with “progressives” to pass this bill in spite of the prison lobby. This is why I am urging people not only to support the Smarter Sentencing Act, but to reach out to their representatives and inform them where they stand on this important issue.
In closing, since the budget/debt ceiling/shutdown fiasco has temporarily “ended,” I urge all of you to call, write, and/or e-mail your representatives and senators and urge them to support the Smarter Sentencing Act. It is good for our bottom line and a good step forward toward fairer and more equitable sentencing.
Finally, not only should we not be spending this excessive amount of money incarcerating people, we should also be focusing our energy and funds on education, treatment, and employment skills if we want to end this horrible cycle. Many people who have been formerly incarcerated lack the education and skills to get jobs, and even when they have the education and/or skills they are often “scarlet lettered” by their conviction(s) and thus are unable to find employment – which only leads them back to crime. However, there are ways for us to end this cycle without formal government involvement. For example, if you own a business and are hiring, I would urge you to do your part in attempting to employ and train people (after interviews, of course, to ensure that they are capable of satisfactory and trustworthy performance in the workplace) who were formerly incarcerated. I know of at least one formerly incarcerated individual, in particular, who was given a great opportunity working for a company after his conviction. Subsequently, he was promoted three times and is now one of the company’s most trusted employees. We can all do our part.