The US Sentencing Commission has been ordered by Congress to review mandatory minimum sentencing. The order came via the National Defense Authorization Act signed last month by President Obama. The act contains quietly added language calling on the commission to conduct several tasks, including examining the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and exploring alternatives.
Congress began passing mandatory minimum laws in the 1980s, especially for drug and weapons offenses. In part as a direct result, the federal prison population has ballooned from 24,000 prisoners in 1980 to more than 209,000 last week. More than half of all federal prisoners are doing time for drug offenses.
Now, the Sentencing Commission is charged with issuing recommendations on mandatory minimums. But don't hold your breath -- this could take awhile.
"It's going to be a massive undertaking," the new chairman of the Sentencing Commission, William Sessions III, told the Wall Street Journal. Sessions said the review would range from weighing the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing on prison population figures and spending to assessing the social impact of those policies. "In my view," he said, "it's a very open-ended request."
Even if the Sentencing Commission were to eventually recommend changing or eliminating mandatory minimums, the final decision is up to Congress. In that regard, recent history is not very encouraging. The commission has for years formally recommended that Congress to undo the sentencing disparity between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses, but Congress has, rejected its advice, except for minor relief when it allowed changes in sentencing guidelines that reduced some crack sentences,although that may finally change this year or next.
When the commission last undertook a full-scale review of sentencing laws in 1991, there were 60 mandatory minimum offenses on the books. Now, there are 170.