Senators Join Forces To Reduce Jail Sentences For Non-Violent Drug Offenders

By McCarton Ackerman 10/02/15

Certain non-violent offenders might benefit from a rare show of bipartisanship.

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Bipartisan agreements are becoming increasingly rare in the political landscape, but a group of senators from across the country have joined forces to introduce legislation that could significantly reduce prison time for certain non-violent drug offenders.

The deal eliminates mandatory life sentences for three-time, non-violent drug offenders, while judges will also be allowed to use their discretion in sentencing below the mandatory minimum for these types of offenders.

Current inmates deemed at a low risk to offend again could also have their sentences cut by up to 25% if they agree to take part in rehabilitation programs. They may also be able to finish the final stages of their sentence in supervised, community-based programs.

Any eligible inmate applying for resentencing would be required to undergo regular assessments to determine their risk of re-offending. Life sentences could also still be issued for violent drug offenders, members of organized crime groups and inmates convicted of terrorism charges, among other similarly high-risk populations.

"People are being entangled in the justice system who just shouldn't be," said Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network. "And when they come out, they're better criminals, they're not better citizens. Too many people are in prison, we're spending too much money to keep them there, and we're not getting the public safety return we deserve.”

However, the senators admitted they were unsure if the legislation could make it past the more polarized House. The White House hasn’t commented on the bipartisan efforts, but Barack Obama has been a vocal supporter of making changes to the criminal justice system. He said earlier this year that distinctions needed to be made between young people doing "stupid things" and violent criminals.

Mandatory minimum sentences are part of the reason why the U.S. prison population has soared over the last 30 years, rising from under 25,000 in 1980 to over 200,000 currently. Many of those behind bars are serving sentences for relatively minor drug possession charges.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.