Labrador seeks reform of drug sentencing laws

He says his bill should attract widespread, bipartisan support.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comNovember 4, 2013 

A bill introduced last week by U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, would remove the threat of mandatory prison sentences for low-level drug offenders.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, would allow judges to make sentencing decisions in cases where the defendants did not use violence and were not major dealers.

"There's a move in Washington, D.C., to completely get rid of the sentencing guidelines, but I don't think we're going to get there any day soon," Labrador said Friday during an interview with reporters at his Meridian office. "What this bill does is reform the sentencing guidelines in a way that could be bipartisan. It might be something we can pass now rather than wait several years."

He said the "one size fits all" approach now in place ties the hands of judges without improving public safety.

Over the summer, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder moved to change the policies used by the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys in prosecuting drug cases. Holder also sought to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences — in many cases 10 or 20 years — for low-level, nonviolent drug dealers.

Wendy Olson, Idaho's U.S. attorney, told the Idaho Statesman last month that nothing would change how drug cases are handled in the state. She said her office already targets major dealers and works out deals with lower-level dealers who cooperate with authorities, allowing them to plead guilty to lesser charges that do not impose a mandatory sentence.

"The problem we have is that in certain states we have people going to prison for first-time, nonviolent offenses and they're going for a long period of time," Labrador said.

Nearly 47 percent of the nation's 219,000 federal prisoners are doing time for drug offenses, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The next highest category — for weapons offenses, explosives and arson — accounts for just 16 percent of inmates.

Back in 1980, there were only 24,000 federal prisoners.

Since that year, the cost to maintain the federal prison population has grown by 1,700 percent, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Labrador said it costs nearly $30,000 to house a federal prisoner for a year, a number verified by the Bureau of Prisons.

"The fact we are spending so much money on imprisonment, I think it's important for us to look for ways to minimize the amount of money while keeping society safe," Labrador said.

"It's one of those things where conservatives and liberals can actually agree and work together. As a fiscal conservative, I want to make sure we use our federal dollars wiser," Labrador said.

In a written statement, Scott said giving judges more discretion in drug cases is the right thing to do.

"Studies of mandatory minimums conclude that they fail to reduce crime, they waste the taxpayers' money, and they often require the imposition of sentences that violate common sense," Scott said.

Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The House bill also would allow inmates convicted of drug crimes before passage of the Fair Sentencing Act to ask judges to reconsider their sentences.

That law, which went into effect in 2010, eliminated the disparity between sentences for people convicted of possession of crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. African-Americans are more likely to be convicted of crack offenses and be given longer sentences than those caught with regular cocaine.

"We're promoting a way for judges to use the Fair Sentencing Act to resentence people who have already been convicted under the program we had before," Labrador said.

John Sowell: 377-6423

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