Cutting Federal Sentences: Is It Worth The Risk?

One of the biggest myths in the debate about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) is that its sentencing reductions would only apply to low-level, non-violent drug offenders. In reality, this bill significantly cuts sentences for thousands of serious drug traffickers, armed career criminals, and violent felons.

Right now, there are approximately 2,360,000 individuals locked up in the United States, and only 182,000 are in federal prison. In the federal prison population 86,500 are behind bars for drug offenses. Of those drug offenders, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has already cut the sentences of 46,000 drug trafficking and distribution offenders.

To put this in perspective, the number of low-level drug offenders in federal prison is vanishingly small. According to an October 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, only a scant 0.1 percent — just 247 of inmates in federal custody — are serving time for drug possession. More than 99.5 percent of federal drug offenders are locked up for trafficking, and only 12 percent of federal drug crimes primarily involve marijuana.

Federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are reserved almost exclusively for large-scale traffickers of heroin, cocaine, PCP, and other hard drugs. To be eligible for the 10-year mandatory minimum for trafficking, one must possess at least 5 kilograms (11 lbs.) of cocaine — a street value of around $180,000 — or 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of heroin, enough for 10,000 individual doses. The 10-year mandatory minimum for marijuana is not triggered unless the trafficker possesses at least 1,000 kilograms — more than a ton.

The drug offenders who will benefit from reduced sentences are not recreational marijuana users or small-time dealers. They are serious drug traffickers, and thousands of them will be released early if this bill becomes law. Contrary to claims by proponents, we are talking about violent criminals who are likely to continue their illegal behavior.

Evidence for the nexus between drugs, guns, and violence is undeniable, especially when large quantities of drugs are involved. According to the National Institutes of Health, “drug activity has robust effects on violent crime.” The National Security Council observed that drug traffickers play a role in transnational criminal networks which “pose the gravest threat” to public safety.

Aside from the violence inherent in the drug trade, we can’t forget the tremendous human and economic costs of drug trafficking — the heroin epidemic we see today powerfully demonstrates how illegal drugs can ravage entire American communities.

In addition to serious drug traffickers, this bill also cuts sentences for violent repeat offenders, including felons prosecuted under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), a law reserved for individuals with extensive, and frequently violent, criminal histories. These criminals are among the worst in federal custody, yet this bill gives these violent offenders a generous 5-year reduction in sentence.

Take, for example, Albert Burnett, a felon who was sentenced to the ACCA’s 15-year mandatory minimum after his involvement in a 2009 shootout. Burnett had five prior convictions for violent felonies, including attempted murder and aggravated battery, in addition to several gun offenses. If this bill becomes law, Burnett will be eligible for a 5-year reduction to his sentence.

Albert Burnett is not an outlier. The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that over 3,500 gun offenders, many of whom are violent career criminals like Burnett, will be eligible for reduced sentences, and the statistics on recidivism rates for violent criminals and drug traffickers show that releasing these offenders early is simply not worth the risk.

According to the most recent report on recidivism from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, within 5 years after release 76.9 percent of drug offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders will reoffend, with a substantial minority (36.8 percent) reoffending in the first six months.

In recent Congressional testimony, Iowa State University Sociology Professor Matt DeLisi estimates that releasing just 1 percent of current federal inmates will result in approximately 32,850 additional murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, auto thefts, and incidents of arson.

It is a statistical certainty that tens of thousands of Americans will be unnecessarily victimized or killed if these sentencing reductions take effect.

Proponents are perpetuating the myth that this bill only provides relief to low level, non-violent drug offenders. Dispelling this myth is important in order to direct our attention to achieving sensible reforms that improve our federal criminal justice system and keep the American people safe.