Reducing the Minimum Time That Non-Violent Drug Offenders Have to Serve in Federal Prisons (S. 502)
Do you support or oppose this bill?
What is S. 502?
(Updated August 25, 2021)
This bill would reduce the mandatory minimums in federal drug sentencing policies, giving federal judges more options when sentencing people convicted of non-violent drug offenses.
The mandatory minimum in the Controlled Substances Act for a conviction related to the distribution, possession with intent to distribute, and manufacture of certain drugs in specified amounts would be lowered from 10 years to five years. If death or serious bodily harm occurs from the drug’s use, the mandatory minimum would be lowered from 20 years to 10 years.
For first convictions, the mandatory minimum sentence would be lowered from five years to two years, and dropped from 20 years to 10 years for a second conviction. If a person had two or more felony drug convictions before their next conviction, the mandatory minimum would be dropped from life imprisonment to 25 years.
Mandatory minimums under the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act would be lowered for "drug mules" from 10 years to five for a first conviction, and from 20 years to 10 for a second conviction. For convictions involving mules of smaller amounts of illegal drugs, the mandatory minimum would be lowered from five years to two for a first offense, and from 10 years to five for a second offense.
Under this bill, the U.S. Sentencing Commission would have to review and change its sentencing guidelines to:
- Ensure that prison populations don’t exceed capacity,
- While considering the fiscal and public safety implications of these changes,
- And reduce racial disparities in Federal sentencing.
Argument in favor
It doesn’t make sense to imprison low-level, non-violent drug offenders for years, or even decades considering how overcrowded the prison system already is. The U.S. corrections system should be focusing its resources on violent threats to the public.
Drugs ruin people’s lives, and those who make and distribute drugs need to be incarcerated as they pose a clear threat to public safety. Lowering mandatory minimums sends the wrong message and undermines the war on drugs.
People convicted of low-level, non-violent drug offenses, their families and communities, federal judges, the DOJ, the Attorney General.
Cost of S. 502
A current CBO cost estimate is unavailable. In January 2014, the CBO estimated this bill’s predecessor (in the 113th Congress), finding that it would reduce DOJ spending by $4 billion over the 2015-2024 period. However, because eligible prisoners would be released sooner and be able to receive federal benefits, there would be an increase in spending of about $1 billion over that same period — leading to a net savings of about $3 billion.
In-Depth: The sponsor of this bill — the Smarter Sentencing Act — Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), said that his bill will:
“Give judges the flexibility and discretion they need to impose stiff sentences on the most serious drug lords and cartel bosses, while enabling non-violent offenders to return more quickly to their families and communities.”
A similar version of this bill was introduced during the 113th Congress with the bipartisan support of 23 Democratic, six Republican, and two Independent Senators — but it failed to advance out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The current version of this legislation has seven Democratic and five Republican cosponsors.
Of Note: As of March 2015, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported 95,474 inmates in federal custody who were convicted of drug offenses — making up 48.7 percent of all federal inmates. The population of federal prisons has grown by nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years, and the Director of the BOP told a House Appropriations subcommittee in 2013 that the federal prison system was operating with overcrowding rates of 37 percent.
Of all the prisoners in BOP custody in 2010, 39.4 percent were subject to a mandatory minimum sentence. Mandatory minimum sentences applied to roughly 60 percent of all federal drug offenders in 2012. Of those federal drug offenders only 15 percent had a weapon involved in their arrest.
- Sponsoring Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) Press Release
- CBO Estimate (Previous Version)
- The Hill
- Washington Post
- USA Today
- Reason (In Favor)
- FreedomWorks (In Favor)
- ACLU (In Favor)
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (In Favor)
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