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Bipartisan Bills to Ease Mandatory Minimum Federal Drug Sentences

When Mandy M. was 27, she was addicted to meth and her boyfriend was a drug dealer. Just weeks after she let him move in with her, police raided the house and found methamphetamine, marijuana, and two guns. Since Mandy had never been in trouble with the law before, she was released on her own recognizance before trial. She got sober and returned to work. Her arrest seemed just what she needed to get clean.

While Mandy didn't sell any drugs, her former boyfriend testified that she helped him by doing small things like counting money -- and that she owned and sometimes carried one of the guns. While acknowledging that Mandy poses no threat to the community, the federal judge said his hands were tied by the mandatory federal drug sentencing rules. He had to sentence her to 15 years in federal prison.

The War on Drugs has resulted in federal sentencing guidelines for drug crimes that many criminal justice scholars, federal judges and families of the convicted have called draconian -- especially for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no prior convictions. In response, in 2011 the U.S. Sentencing Commission introduced a "safety valve" that allows judges to bypass the harsh guideline sentences in limited circumstances.

In the past, those who argued for sharply reducing incarceration for drug crimes were considered "soft on crime." Today, however, public opinion is changing, and both state and federal lawmakers know it.

The U.S. incarcerates more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons. By 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons' budget had ballooned to $6.8 billion -- around 25 percent of the entire Justice Department's budget. Nearly half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, and they can't be released due to mandatory federal drug sentencing.

If outrage over the human cost mass-incarceration couldn't bring change, the shocking financial cost just might. Bills sponsored by bipartisan groups have recently been introduced in both the House and Senate. Two before the Senate would expand the "safety valve" to more drug offenders, or even to people convicted of other federal crimes. One in the House would allow prisoners to earn a chance to complete their sentences in half-way houses or even at home.

It's too soon to say whether these bills will pass, but the message is becoming increasingly clear: mandatory minimums and mass-incarceration are unjust, or at least unsustainable.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Congress Looks To Relax Mandatory Prison Terms," Henry C. Jackson, Sept. 17, 2013