Op-ed: Congress should follow Utah’s lead on sentencing reform
Mass incarceration in this country has become an epidemic over the past 30 years. One of the major factors that have contributed to this widespread problem has been the war on drugs. Mandatory minimum statutes were created as part of the war on drugs and, as a result, prisons have been inundated with thousands of non-violent low-level drug offenders.
Racial disparities are one of the major flaws associated with mass incarceration. When the crack epidemic hit the nation in the 1980s, the media often maligned crack cocaine with African Americans in urban neighborhoods. Harsh drug policies targeting crack cocaine ensued and as a result, blacks filled prisons across the U.S., contributing to the racial disparities that we see today.
The state of Utah has also seen the effects of the disproportionate rates of mass incarceration. A study conducted by the Prison Policy Institute based on the 2010 Census revealed that although blacks, Hispanics and American Indians make up less than 20 percent of Utah’s total population, these racial minorities represent over 30 percent of the state’s prison population.
The state of Utah made progress last spring when it passed House Bill 348, a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill that is expected to curtail prison growth in the state by 37 percent over the next 20 years. This legislation came in response to the 18 percent growth in Utah’s prison population between 2004 and 2013, despite a drop in Utah’s crime rate over the past two decades. This prison growth has been primarily attributed to sentences handed down for drug possession charges.
While Utah has taken strides to address the issue of mass incarceration, nationwide criminal justice reform is still a problem that needs to be addressed. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act hopes to address this issue at the federal level. Should the bill pass, it would allow certain federal inmates currently incarcerated for low-level drug-related offenses to have their sentences reduced. Specifically, this bill will reduce the current mandatory minimums for second and third drug offenses, and adjust “safety valve” exceptions so that low-level drug offenders can seek sentences below the set mandatory minimums.
As a criminal defense attorney with extensive experience representing indigent defendants in federal court, and as a former assistant U.S. attorney, I have seen firsthand how federal mandatory minimum laws have become a major detriment to our criminal justice system, further perpetuating this system of mass incarceration.
Mandatory minimums give prosecutors too much power. By charging an offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence, the prosecutor has power over when to charge, what to charge, and what the sentence will be. It takes away from the sentence being determined by a neutral and unbiased judge.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will change all of this. The bill is strongly backed by Sen. Mike Lee, who is one of its key co-sponsors, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz has signed on as a co-sponsor for the bill’s House counterpart bill — the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015.
I hope to see Sen. Orrin Hatch, with his strong record of bipartisanship, join Sen. Lee in the effort. It is only right for us to support the spirit of criminal justice reform that has been embraced in our own state. This will allow thousands of individuals to return home to their families and restart their lives, while reducing overcrowding in prisons, but maintaining public safety.
Nathan Crane served in the White House under George W. Bush’s Drug Czar. He has also served as an assistant United States attorney in Nevada and as a deputy district attorney in Las Vegas. He currently practices law in Utah for Snow, Christensen and Martineau.