This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Our nation's criminal justice system has been in dire need of reform for far too long a realization that cuts across political and ideological lines. That's why Utah's U.S. Sen. Mike Lee should be praised for leading a bipartisan coalition to introduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
To understand how important this bill is, we must first look at just how in need of repair our criminal justice system is. From 1980 to 2012, the federal prison population grew almost 800 percent, with the current total at over 2 million federal and state prisoners. Many of these offenders are non-violent, especially in the federal system. Over 2,200 individuals were sentenced to federal prison last year for simple drug possession.
More troubling, perhaps, is that "had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent," according to a recent Villanova University study.
One of the reasons for this crisis is mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, which force judges to hand out lengthy sentences for many non-violent, low-level offenses. This shift to prosecutorial power has not only led to more guilty convictions, but it has also led respected jurists on both sides of the aisle to voice their concern that innocent people are pleading guilty something none of us who believe in the rule of law can tolerate. It also has led to lengthier sentences that judges themselves disagree with.
Consider the case of Weldon Angelos here in Utah.
At 24 years old, Mr. Angelos was arrested for selling a small amount of marijuana and possessing a firearm. Federal Judge Paul Cassell handed him a mandatory 55-year sentence in 2004, meaning Angelos will be in prison until he's 79 years old.
Judge Cassell pointed out Mr. Angelos was punished more severely than a child rapist, a second-degree murderer, or even an aircraft hijacker a fact he called "cruel, unjust, and even irrational." He even petitioned then-President Bush and later President Obama, to commute Mr. Angelos' sentence, but to no avail.
Sadly, this case isn't an exception. Mandatory minimums have forced thousands of non-violent offenders into excessive and unnecessary sentences, ripping apart communities and preventing people from a second chance at a productive life, all at the taxpayers' expense.
That's why Lee should be lauded for leading the way on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The bill would reduce some of the mandatory penalties for low-level, non-violent offenses, and establish a safety-value to give judges greater sentencing discretion. Moreover, it would correct the federal statute flaw that led to Angelos' excessively long sentence, ensuring no one else endures such hardship.
Perhaps most compelling is that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would allow qualifying inmates to earn reduced sentences by completing educational and faith-based programs to help them become less likely to return to criminal behavior.
This is especially important considering the difficult transition newly released inmates endure. Not only is it difficult for ex-offenders to find work, but when they do, their options are often limited. In fact, former male inmates make 40 percent lower annual earnings than the rest of the population, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Fortunately, the Senate bill offers a promising change based on reforms that we've already seen work in a number of red states.
Over the past 10 years, 27 states have enacted reforms to their criminal justice systems. Some have enhanced judicial discretion while others have simply lowered mandatory minimums for certain crimes.
The results? From 2004 to 2014, the average state imprisonment rate fell 5 percent. Since 2007, the states that have enacted reforms have seen larger overall drops in crime.
By reducing crime, recidivism and incarceration rates, this bill would keep more families together, make our communities safer and make law enforcement's difficult job easier. It even has the support of over 400 organizations, including influential law enforcement organizations and federal, state and local prosecutor groups.
The truth is, we don't need to be "harder" on crime, we need to be smarter on crime. This legislation is an important first step for doing so at the federal level. And Lee's principled leadership is helping to break down barriers to opportunity especially for the least fortunate and restore justice at a time when we need it most.
Mark Holden is general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries.