Last week, the chair of the United States Sentencing Commission delivered an important speech that brought conservatives, liberals, and others together under the banner of sentencing reform.
The speech was entitled, “A Generational Shift for Drug Sentences,” and it was delivered by the Hon. Patti Saris, who is a federal district judge for the District of Massachusetts. Judge Saris currently serves as the chief judge of her district, and she has served as a state or federal judge for the past 30 years.
With that background, it’s safe to say that she has sentenced a lot of defendants in general and a lot of drug defendants in particular. Plus, for the past four years, Judge Saris has chaired the Sentencing Commission, which is the federal agency that studies federal crime and sentencing issues, advises Congress and the executive branch about them, and develops the federal sentencing guidelines that drive most federal sentences.
Her speech did two things. First, it pressed the case for Congress to revise our mandatory-minimum drug penalties in three ways:
- By reducing mandatory-minimum drug sentences in general;
- By expanding the “safety-valve” provision that permits federal judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum in cases of non-violent, low-level drug offenders; and
- By making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. (The Fair Sentencing Act, you might recall, was the law that reduced the disparity in treatment of crack and powder cocaine, among other things.)
As Judge Saris indicated in her speech, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation last month that took up each of those recommendations with bipartisan support.
The second thing her speech discussed was an amendment to the sentencing guidelines that the Commission proposed in January of this year. The proposed amendment would reduce the drug guidelines by two levels, which would have the modest but humane effect of reducing the average federal drug sentence from 62 months (or 5+ years) to 51 months (or 4+ years).
The moral benefits and cost savings of these reforms are significant. Our federal prisons are roughly 38% over capacity, and drug offenders represent one-third of all federal sentences. Of those, twenty-three percent consist of low-level mules and couriers who are charged with mandatory-minimum penalties about half the time. Overall, the largest group of drug defendants subject to these severe mandatory-minimum sentences are street-level dealers, not the kingpins and organizers we imagine.