U.S. study urges sentencing reform

Oct. 31, 2011 at 11:40 PM

WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Mandatory minimum sentences are "excessively severe and are applied inconsistently," the U.S. Sentencing Commission has concluded.

The commission, which studied the issue at the direction of Congress, released a 645-page report Monday. In a statement, Commission Chair Judge Patti B. Saris said the commission "continues to believe that a strong and effective guideline system best serves the purposes of sentencing established by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984," and recommends reform of mandatory sentencing.

"While there is a spectrum of views on the Commission regarding mandatory minimum penalties, the Commission unanimously believes that certain mandatory minimum penalties apply too broadly, are excessively severe, and are applied inconsistently across the country," the statement said.

The commission report recommends Congress revisit "certain statutory recidivist provisions" in drug sentencing law and consider reform that would allow for flexibility in sentencing "low-level, non-violent offenders convicted of other offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties."

The commission also recommended that Congress reconsider so-called stacking of mandatory minimum penalties for some federal firearms crimes, "as the penalties that may result can be excessively severe and unjust, particularly in circumstances where there is no physical harm or threat of physical harm."

Saris said mandatory minimum sentencing has contributed to federal prison overcrowding, with the federal Bureau of Prisons over its capacity by 37 percent.

"The number of federal prisoners has tripled in the last 20 years," Saris said. "Although the Commission recognizes that mandatory minimum penalties are only one of the factors that have contributed to the increased capacity and cost of inmates in federal custody (an increase in immigration cases is another), the Commission recommends that Congress request prison impact analyses from the Commission as early as possible in the legislative process when Congress considers enacting or amending federal criminal penalties."

The report is posted online at www.ussc.gov.

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