Essential Pittsburgh
2:03 pm
Fri February 21, 2014

Reducing Mandatory Prison Sentences

Credit Martin / flickr

In an effort to mitigate overcrowding in American prisons, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has proposed the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Critics of the bill say these sentences are necessary because they provide prosecutors the leverage to seek cooperation from criminals.

Angus Love of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project explains this overpopulation is due in part to the residual effects of the government’s “war on drugs” as well as a shift in case management and the way sentences are given. 

“What has happened over the past 30 years during this tremendous increase in the prison population is that they have taken the sentencing discretion out of the hands of judges and they’re giving it to legislators. While legislators are well meaning, they often play to the crowd and try to out-do one another on being tough on crime...to put a straightjacket on the judge and require mandatory sentencing really hampers the overall effort.”

Love says when he was in law school, drug addiction was treated as a mental health concern rather than a criminal issue. He has watched the prison budget rise from $200 million in 1980 to the governor’s current proposal of $2.2 billion. Unfortunately, he says many politicians have made a career out of being tough on drugs and any leniency could be seen as morally ambivalent.

“This type of thinking is wrong-headed and really drains valuable resources that could be used for other things.”