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Congress asked to reduce sentencing for drug crimes

Brian Bowling
| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 11:36 p.m.

Mandatory minimum drug sentences fueled an explosion in federal prison populations and spending since the mid-1980s with little discernible effect on the drug trade, several legal experts say.

Prison overcrowding and the ballooning federal corrections budget have Congress and the president talking about sentencing reforms that include reducing the average sentence and scaling back mandatory minimum sentences.

Douglas Sughrue, a private defense attorney, said the push for shorter sentences is welcome news for people who think drug laws are too severe, though he would prefer it were driven by a sense of justice instead of worry about the amount of taxpayer money spent on prisons.

“If it wasn't for the budgetary crisis, they wouldn't be doing anything like this,” he said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

The Justice Department for 2014 is seeking $8.5 billion for prisons and correctional programs.

Since 1985, the number of people in federal prisons increased by more than 400 percent from 40,223 to 215,965, records show. Spending to detain prisoners increased by more than 1,400 percent from $550 million in 1985 to $8.3 billion in 2013, according to White House's Office of Management and the Budget.

Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday asked Congress to take up the Smart Sentencing Act sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. The bill would reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes and give judges more leeway in deciding punishment.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Jan. 9 released a related proposal that would reduce the recommended sentence on most drug crimes by about 11 months.

The guidelines were established to improve consistency of sentencing by giving judges fact-based criteria.

“Had (the guidelines) been politically neutral, I think it would have led to a fair system,” said Patrick Livingston, a private defense attorney.

But Congress, two years later, passed mandatory minimum sentences for most drug crimes, taking away much of the judges' discretion, he said.

Sughrue said lawmakers intended to target drug kingpins and their lieutenants but, as a practical matter, those people can trade information to investigators in return for favorable plea bargains.

“They're out of jail in five or six (years),” Sughrue said. “Meanwhile, the drug runners are in for 10 or 12.”

Bruce Antkowiak, a St. Vincent College law professor and former federal prosecutor, said even when a drug kingpin goes to prison, he's easily replaced.

“It is a classic example of supply and demand,” he said. “If the demand side of the drug equation is still high, somebody is going to have the entrepreneurial spirit and the lack of concern for the laws of the nation and world to supply them.”

Given the burden on taxpayers and lack of results, it's time to consider options other than building prisons, he said.

“If they were really eliminating the drug problem in this country, you could support them,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or

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