Congress has ordered U.S. Sentencing Commission to conduct a review of mandatory-minimum sentences, a move that could contribute to a dramatic rethinking of how the U.S. incarcerates its criminals, the Wall Street Journal reports. The review is included in the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law last month by President Barack Obama. Congress in the 1980s began passing mandatory-minimum laws, which dictate the minimum sentence a judge must hand out for a particular crime. Among the results were longer sentences, increased prison populations and ballooning budgets.
Amid cost concerns in recent years, at least 26 states have cut corrections spending recently and at least 17 are closing prisons or reducing inmate populations, says the Vera Institute of Justice. The new study will be a “massive undertaking,” said Sentencing Commission chairman William Sessions III, chief federal judge in Vermont. The population in federal prisons has risen from 24,000 in 1980 to 209,000 as of Nov. 5. The commission has pushed for changes in mandatory minimums, such as ending the disparity in sentencing for crimes involving crack-cocaine and powder cocaine. The panel has not done a full-scale examination of federal sentencing laws since 1991. Then, there were 60 mandatory-minimum laws on the books. Now there are about 170.