The current federal prison system has taxpayers playing the fool. Despite extraordinary increases in scope and cost, it may be making us less safe. In 1980, the federal prison population stood at 25,000 inmates; today, it’s at 218,000 — 139 percent of its capacity. Half the people are serving time for drug offenses. Since 2000, the Bureau of Prisons’ budget has nearly doubled, to about $6.7 billion. While that number sounds small in comparison with what we spend on health care, it is crushing the Justice Department. Federal prisons now consume a full quarter of the Department’s budget.
Every year, Congress adds more, lengthier, one-size-fits-all punishments for entire classes of offenders — mostly drug and gun law violators. These sentences ban federal judges from distinguishing between high-level and low-level, dangerous and nonviolent, or first-time and repeat offenders. Our prisons are full of nonviolent offenders we’re just mad at, rather than violent people who truly need to be separated from society for a long time. When one in every four DOJ dollars goes to locking up nonviolent offenders instead of paying for prosecutors, police, and prison cells for violent criminals and terrorists, lawmakers and the public ought to sit up and demand an explanation.
Political polar opposites, Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., proposed a cost-saving and safety-enhancing solution. Their bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would authorize federal judges to sentence people below the mandatory minimum term when certain conditions are met. Under the bill, judges could give the convicted, say, eight years in prison instead of the mandatory 10, if doing so would protect the public, avoid unjustifiable sentencing disparities between similar offenders, or result in better rehabilitation or restitution to victims. The cost savings could put cops on the street or fund rehabilitation programs that will reduce recidivism. While dollars may drive Washington, our organization, Justice Fellowship, is driven by the belief that smarter sentencing policy embodies Christian restorative justice principles that will lead to increased public safety.
This kind of “safety valve” has precedent. In 1994, Congress created a safety valve for federal drug offenders who fulfill a strict, five-part test. But a single, low-level misdemeanor conviction or the mere presence of even a legally-owned gun during the crime is enough to disqualify someone. Despite this, the drug safety valve has ensured that 80,000 nonviolent offenders have served no more time than necessary, saving taxpayers and the Justice Department millions and reserving prison cells for violent criminals who jeopardize public safety.
The expanded safety valve proposed by Senators Leahy and Paul would do even more to reserve costly federal prison beds and budget resources for the most dangerous offenders. It would spare taxpayers from paying for absurdly lengthy mandatory minimums that punish low-level drug offenders as if they were kingpins. One example is Mandy Martinson, a victim of domestic violence who became a drug addict as a way to escape her pain. She lost her job as a dental hygienist and began dating and living with a drug dealer who enabled her habit. When the police came to arrest him, Ms. Martinson was also held accountable for his operation. The judge was forced to give Ms. Martinson a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years — three years more than the dealer, who was able to cut a deal.
The Paul-Leahy bill is not a compromise. It’s an expression of shared principles between the political right and left. Criminals should be punished, but the punishment should fit the crime. When justice will not be served through a mandatory minimum sentence, public safety shouldn’t be the victim, and taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. The Paul-Leahy pursuit of reform represents what is lacking in Washington: leaders setting aside partisan politics and allowing shared principles to inspire sound solutions.
Craig DeRoche is the president of Justice Fellowship and the former Republican speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.