In the last 40 years, the federal prison population has quintupled. It has gone from less than 25,000 inmates to more than 195,000. Many of those 195,000 inmates are nonviolent drug offenders serving long mandatory minimum sentences.
Congress is considering a major bill to change this, but the bill has run into strong opposition. Will Congress take action to change the sentencing game? And how do you protect yourself effectively until it does?
Why federal sentencing reform is hard to achieve
The Sentencing Reform and Correction Act of 2015 would reduce mandatory minimums for certain offenses and give judges more authority over sentencing. It would also encourage inmates to take part in rehabilitation programs by offering incentives for earlier release.
Numerous key legislators from both major parties support the reform bill, as does President Obama. But the bill has run into difficulty on two levels.
One problem is that some Republicans in Congress are seeking to insert new material into the bill that would make broad changes in federal law regarding the standards for the prosecution of corporate crime. Under this insertion, the bill would require a clearer level of intent to commit wrongdoing than under existing law in order to prove a financial or environmental offense.
Another problem that may prevent passage of the bill is concern that it could result in the release of violent offenders who would put public safety at risk. Senator Ted Cruz is among those making this contention. And since Sen. Cruz is a leading presidential contender, sentencing reform has therefore become caught up in presidential politics.
Given these two challenges, sentencing reform at the federal level may be hard to achieve. At the state level, however, many states and moving proactively to reduce their prison populations and help facilitate the reentry of ex-offenders to society.
How mandatory sentences tie the hands of judges
Historically, sentencing systems in the U.S. gave a lot of control over sentences to judges and parole board. Judges made decisions about whether to send an offender to prison or instead to use probation or some other alternative program. If the sentence was to prison, it would be for a range of time, with the ultimate length to be determined by a parole board.
In the 1980s and 90s, the federal system and numerous states passed many mandatory minimum sentences that took away authority from judges and parole boards. Under a mandatory minimum sentence, a judge typically has little or no choice about whether to sentence someone to prison - or for how long.
Many of these mandatory minimum sentences were imposed on nonviolent drug offenders. This did not only result in a huge increase in the prison population. It also created many unfair outcomes, as judges were forced to impose sentences that did not take into account individual circumstances.
For example, under federal law selling less than 30 grams of crack cocaine can lead to a mandatory sentence of five years behind bars. There are also mandatory minimum sentences for other types of crimes, including certain pornography, weapons and financial offenses.
It's like walking through a minefield, trying to avoid tripping the terrible trap of a mandatory minimum sentence.
Why you need a skilled defense lawyer
In a sentencing landscape where mandatory minimums are like landmines, the need for a skilled criminal defense attorney is paramount. You don't want to trigger an excessively long sentence that will land you in prison for years to come.
The specific issue at hand may be a white collar charge, a drug offense or some other allegation. To give yourself