In a move that could substantially affect the inmate population across the country, the United States Justice Department is seeking to lessen the sentences for “less serious” offenders — particularly those who possessed drugs.
In 1984, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines established mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses. Depending upon the “level” and “zone” of the offense, a federal offense can put someone in prison for decades. Many states ended up emulating the Sentencing Guidelines in order to appear tough on crime. What it meant was that federal or state judges could not use their discretion to arrive at a sentence, no matter the facts of the case. The Sentencing Guidelines were meant to bring clarity and consistency to the criminal justice system, but ended up leading to countless people getting lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes. Even though judges are no longer bound to follow the Sentencing Guidelines (they are advisory) the problems they caused remain.
In a letter report to the United States Sentencing Commission, the director of the Justice Department’s policy and legislation office noted that while violent crime was at a national low, the prison population had exploded since 1984. The Sentencing Commission had previously stated that it would look into reviewing and amending guidelines for drug crimes, economic crimes, gun offenses, and probation violations. The letter asked the Sentencing Commission to look at the changes made at the state level as a guide. In response to prison overcrowding, many states have shortened sentences for nonviolent crimes or set up programs to decrease repeat offenses. West Virginia is among the states that have taken such steps. At the same time, the Justice Department urged certain sentences to be tougher, such as trafficking of firearms, or lying about buying firearms for another person.
If the Sentencing Commission could be persuaded to shorten sentences for nonviolent crimes, that can only be a positive step. Over the past year, this blog has discussed the problems that West Virginia has had with an overcrowded prison population. Prisons have become so cramped that many prisoners end up being housed in state jails, which are not equipped to deal with them. The population explosion has also been linked to an increase in inmate-on-inmate violence. Not only does this not help with rehabilitation, but also keeping an aging prison population is expensive. West Virginia officials have been pursuing alternate measures.
The changes would also benefit the countless numbers of West Virginians who cannot afford to hire a West Virginia criminal defense attorney to help them avoid a lengthy prison sentence. Many criminal suspects are given court-appointed attorneys with often overwhelming caseloads, who may not be able to give their case the attention it needs. Frightened of serving a long prison sentence, many suspects will accept a plea bargain that lets them serve shorter sentences, even if they did not commit any crime. Such a problem would decrease if the long prison sentences were no longer a threat. If rehabilitation were offered instead of prison, nonviolent offenders could serve out their punishment without any disruption or hardship for their families.