Bill could end mandatory minimums for many federal drug crimes

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing recently on what could prove to be one of the biggest overhauls of United States criminal sentencing policy ever seen.

The committee is considering a pair of bipartisan bills that, if passed, would allow federal judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for certain drug crimes and other offenses. The hearing, which took place on September 18, 2013, was lauded by supporters of the legislation as an important first step toward an overall goal of reducing prison populations and improving fairness in the criminal justice system.

Over the past few decades, prison spending has skyrocketed in the United States. As of 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. prison population was more than 1.5 million - the highest in the world. Included in that number are approximately 219,000 federal prisoners, about half of whom are sentenced for drug crimes. Many people convicted of federal drug crimes also struggle with addiction and substance abuse issues.

Mandatory minimums counterproductive, critics say

A vast majority of the people currently serving time in federal prison for drug offenses were subject to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which prohibit judges from ordering shorter prison sentences even if they believe it would be appropriate to do so under the specific circumstances of a case. These laws have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as the nation struggles with high recidivism rates and ballooning prison costs. Currently, the federal prison system is exceeding its capacity by nearly 40 percent, the Associated Press reported.

Although mandatory minimum sentencing laws were originally intended to deter crime with the threat of severe penalties, critics say that mandatory minimums have been harmful and counterproductive. Opponents of mandatory minimum laws argue that punishing relatively minor, non-violent offenses with long prison sentences helps to fuel a vicious cycle of poverty, criminal activity, and incarceration.

In August 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in U.S. drug policy that abandons the "tough on crime" approach of years past in favor of a new "Smart on Crime" model that seeks to match penalties more appropriately to the underlying crimes and places a higher value on rehabilitation.

Oregon mandatory minimums

In addition to federal minimum sentencing laws, many states - including Oregon - also have their own laws that establish mandatory minimum sentences for criminal offenses that are prosecuted at the state level. In Oregon, however, these laws do not typically apply to nonviolent drug crimes. Instead, Oregon's minimum sentencing laws apply to more serious offenses like murder, manslaughter, and assault, as well as robbery, kidnapping and certain sexual crimes.

People charged with drug crimes or other criminal offenses in Oregon should be sure to seek help as soon as possible from a skilled criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer with in-depth knowledge of the criminal justice system can advocate on behalf of accused individuals protect their legal rights and help them pursue the best possible chance of a favorable outcome.

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