That's the question FAMM President Julie Stewart poses in this piece over at The Crime Report today.
The piece was inspired by an important speech from the Department of Justice's Lanny Breuer, noting how soaring federal prison costs mean less funding for cops, prosecutors, and programs that reduce recidivism. That speech was followed by a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at which witnesses noted that the cost of federal prisons now consumes nearly a quarter of the Justice Department's entire budget. As Julie writes,
Compared to losing a loved one or losing one’s life savings, the approximately $28,000 per year it costs to keep a dangerous person in federal prison seems like a bargain. But when that money is spent on excessive and one-size-fits-all prison terms for those who are not a threat or would thrive with smarter alternative punishments, we waste scarce resources and put society at risk.A first, common-sense step to slowing the growth of the federal prison budget is to stop using mandatory minimum sentences. Taxpayers are willing to pay for public safety -- but they shouldn't have to pay for new, lengthy, mandatory sentences that aren't proven to reduce crime and keep us safe. That money can be better spent elsewhere.
Policymakers who are worried – and rightly so – about overcrowding federal prisons and swelling of prison budgets should look at what is driving these unsustainable increases.
The Sentencing Commission last year found that a significant share of the blame rested with mandatory minimum sentences, a point also raised by Chairman Leahy at Wednesday’s hearing. ...
There are many different ways policymakers might seek to reduce corrections spending while maintaining if not improving public safety. ...
[T]hey can reserve expensive prison space for violent and repeat offenders and make use of new technologies and methods that make it possible for low-level, nonviolent offenders to be held in the community.
Policymakers’ first step, however, should be to do no harm. Yet, pending before Congress at this very moment are proposals to impose new mandatory minimum sentences in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization, the Senate’s Cybersecurity bill, and new legislation dealing with identity theft on tax returns.
These proposals cover vastly different offenses, but share two lamentable traits: (1) none of the new mandatory minimums was the subject of a congressional hearing or debate about its utility or lack thereof, (2) all of these new proposals will exacerbate the federal prison problem without any assurance of improving public safety.
In fact, in the case of the new mandatory minimum in the VAWA reauthorization, the only stakeholder to weigh in on either side—pro or con—was a group dedicated to protecting women’s security, which warned Congress that its new penalty provision would hurt, not help, abused women.