Tab Supplemental 2 of 3: The Smarter Sentencing Act

As NTUF continues to improve our new website and The Taxpayer's Tab, Foundation staff brings you the latest BillTally research and commentary on the proposed spending. In the second of our supplemental posts, we scored H.R. 3382 and S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014.

The Bill: H.R. 3382/S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014

Savings Per Year: $75 million ($376 million over five years)

Congressman Raul Labrador (R-ID)For various reasons, such as lasting fiscal difficulties of the Great Recession or the already costly task of housing and paying for increasing prison populations, a majority of state governments are changing their drug laws. The Pew Research Center found that some states are “lowering penalties for possession ... , shortening mandatory minimums or curbing their applicability, removing automatic sentence enhancements, and establishing or extending the jurisdiction of drug courts” while others are disregarding federal law by decriminalizing the possession or sale of marijuana.

In all of these cases, each state and level of government likely has different reasoning in deciding to change the law. Many of the areas with the harshest drug laws and sentences, such as New York and Arkansas, found that their state prisons, which house many more offenders than federal facilities, could not sustain the historically high numbers of nonviolent offenders. States like Texas have switched from prosecutions to drug courts and alternative means to fight widespread addiction and abuse. As state governments are typically better able to react to local problems, they can also craft legislation more in line with the opinions of residents. Pew found that the majority of Americans now favor treatment for illegal drug use, as opposed to calling for prosecutions (a reversal of views held in the 1990s).

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL)Though statutory federal policy has remained unchanged, the Department of Justice eased enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders 2013, which, along with a general reduction in crime, has led to a decrease the federal prison population. It is the first time the overall number of incarcerated individuals has shrunk in decades. It is up for debate as to what factors or policies are directly contributing to these arguably positive results, but many Americans seem to agree with less harsh sentencing laws.

To reform the criminal justice system, the Administration and Congress are considering a number of drug-related sentencing changes. The Justice Department, under the direction of President Obama, has changed the criteria for clemency so that currently serving nonviolent offenders can apply to have their sentences commuted. About 2,000 prisoners would be eligible to go free under the new system.

In Congress, Congressman Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act. If enacted, the bill would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for offenders possessing, manufacturing, or importing small amounts of heroin and cocaine. Because new sentences would be shorter and serving inmates would be eligible to commute some of their prison terms, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts that the government would save $515 million between FY 2015 and 2019 as prison budgets shrink. Fewer inmates would also lead to smaller corrections staff and fewer new facilities needs in the long-term, but would not yield budgetary savings in the first five years.

H.R. 3382 and S. 1410 would also increase the allowable sentences below statutory mandatory minimum sentences to include those with two convictions. This provision, known as expanding the “safety valve” would reduce costs by $12 million over five years.

Approximately $152 million in new costs over five years would result from enacting the Smarter Sentencing Act. By accelerating the release of prisoners, more individuals would be eligible for federal benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, requiring $149 million in new outlays. An additional $3 million would be spent on reports and updating guidelines for law enforcement officials.

Beyond the five-year window of the BillTally project, CBO estimates that the bill would cut spending by a net $3.1 billion over ten years, starting in FY 2015. capitol_dome_tinycapitol_dome_tiny

The Bottom Line: The Smarter Sentencing Act would decrease the number of nonviolent offenders in prison by modifying minimum sentencing laws. H.R. 3382 and S. 1410 would, on net, cut $376 million in federal spending over five years.