Quick Hit: Discretion in Sentencing

February 12, 2014

Barack Obama’s powerful pen is now at work in the penal system — seeking to grant clemency to a number of federal prisoners imprisoned for low-level drug offenses.

Why? Because they received prison terms based on mandatory sentencing. With the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah also seek to restore discretion in non-violent and non-gang-related low-quantity drug crimes.

Some will see drugs as always violent; others will see a slippery slope in the newly legal marijuana use. Still others will recall the judicial inconsistencies bordering on abuse that led to mandatory sentencing in the 1980s.

I would add to that discussion the fact that half of the 216,000 inmates incarcerated in our federal prisons are there for drug-related crimes. This is a system operating at 30 percent over capacity and spending $6.5 billion annually. Indiana is experiencing growing levels of incarceration and facing the expense of constructing additional prisons. The ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out” laws allow no discretion. And it is hardly discretionary to dump prisoners on the streets as they have done recently in California.

The issue, then, is not about the acknowledged harm of drugs but whether we can restore discretion in sentencing and judgments. There would be little need for judges if every case were mandatory, and everyone can name someone who could have a prison record if it had not been for some discretion.

Maybe you can see one in the mirror.

— John Addison Teevan, Ph.D.
Winona Lake

The author is the executive director of Regional (Prison and Urban) Initiatives for Grace College. Comment on this Quick Hit here.

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