For Immediate Release
Monica Pratt Raffanel (202) 621-5044
Unusual Allies Call on Congress to Fit the Punishment to the Crime
The two leaders testified before Congress on Tuesday, July 14 at a hearing held by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. Stewart and Norquist told Congress that the best way to provide public safety and appropriate sentences - for less cost - is by reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Support for reform among lawmakers, judges, policymakers and the public has been building for 20 years and is at a tipping point.
"I believe as fervently as I did 15 years ago when I first testified to Congress that you should use your power to repeal mandatory minimum sentences," Stewart told lawmakers. "After two decades of experimenting with mandatory minimum sentencing policies, the verdict is in: mandatory minimums are a failure. They are a failure today, just as they were in 1970 when a bipartisan Congress voted to repeal the Boggs Act, which required mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. FAMM urges Congress to learn from history and repeal mandatory minimums once more," said Stewart.
In 2008, American taxpayers spent over $5.4 billion on federal prisons, a 925 percent increase since 1982. This explosion in costs is driven by the expanded use of prison sentences for drug crimes and longer sentences required by mandatory minimums. Drug offenders are the largest category of offenders entering federal prisons each year. One third of all individuals sentenced in federal courts each year are drug offenders who are getting long sentences. In 2008, more than two-thirds of all drug offenders receive a mandatory minimum sentence, with most receiving a ten-year minimum.
The jump in corrections costs at the state level has been equally dramatic. State corrections spending has ballooned from $6 billion in 1982 to over $50 billion in 2008. These skyrocketing costs are hitting states at a time when they are already being forced to cut back due to the bad economy.
"The benefits, if any, of mandatory minimum sentences do not justify this burden to taxpayers," said Norquist. "Questioning the wisdom of mandatory minimums has nothing to do with being soft on crime. I believe in strong and swift punishment when appropriate. I support the death penalty for murderers. But the government has a responsibility to use taxpayer money wisely. Viewed through the skeptical eye I train on all other government programs, I have concluded that mandatory minimum sentencing policies are not worth the high cost to America's taxpayers," Norquist concludes.
According to the Pew Center on the States, more than half the states and the District of Columbia are already trying to reduce the growth in their prison populations through alternative sentencing and through new probation and parole procedures, moving away from the "lock-‘em-up" mandatory sentencing policies so typical in the 1980s and 1990s. Pew estimates it costs an average of $79 a day to keep a person in prison but about $3.50 a day to monitor the same person on probation or parole.
This shift in thinking is also taking place in Congress. Three sentencing reform bills discussed at the hearing include H.R. 2934, the "Common Sense in Sentencing Act of 2009"; H.R. 834, the "Ramos and Compean Justice Act of 2009"; and H.R. 1466, the "Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 2009." All of the bills would eliminate mandatory minimums in varying degrees.
H.R. 2934, introduced by Rep. Scott, would allow courts to sentence below a mandatory minimum where the sentence violates the principals of sentencing defined by statute: punishment, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. Rep. Maxine Waters' bill, H.R. 1466, would eliminate all mandatory sentences for drug offenses. H.R. 834, sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), would amend 18 USC §924(c) to exempt law enforcement officers from mandatory minimum sentences of five, seven and 10 years for possessing or using a firearm in connection with a crime of violence (if the firearm is carried to perform their job and is used in relation to the performance of their job.
Says Norquist, "We should know by now to beware of easy solutions. As H.L. Mencken said, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong." Today, a generation later, it is increasingly clear that adoption of mandatory minimums, while a neat and plausible response to sentencing disparities, was the wrong solution."
"What really motivated me to start an organization to repeal mandatory minimum sentences was not the length of my brother Jeff's five-year mandatory sentence - it was witnessing the judge's inability to give my brother the sentence he wanted to," recalls Stewart. "At sentencing, the judge stated that his "hands were tied," by mandatory sentencing laws. I thought in this country we sentenced individuals - not crimes. It seemed utterly un-American. It still does."
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization promoting fair and proportionate sentencing policies. Call Monica Pratt Raffanel at (678) 621-5044 or visit www.famm.org for more information.