For the first time since Richard Nixon declared War on Drugs, Congress has cut back on a mandatory drug-sentencing provision. The amount of crack necessary to trigger a 5-year mandatory will increase from 5 grams (about $500 worth) to 28 grams. The change – not, alas, retroactive – would influence about 2900 sentences per year, cutting them an average of 27 months. That’s more than 6000 prisoner-years saved annually. With a federal prison bed costing about $40,000, that’s nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year. [Update: CBO reports a much smaller number, based on the idea that the Bureau of Prisons will choose to reduce crowding - which improves prisoners' lives but doesn't save much money - rather than to close, or not build, institutions.]
This time, the bill had lots of conservative Republican support, but the ranking Republican on House Judiciary demonstrated why it’s taken more than 20 years to change the law by pulling out the usual demoagogic warnings about rampant drug abuse. The Fraternal Order of Police also weighed in on the wrong side.
Sens. Dick Durbin and Jeff Sessions and Rep. Bobby Scott all deserve congratulations, though I think an administrative fix – regulating the conditions under which the mandatory could be invoked by federal prosecutors so that only worthwhile cases could be brought – would have been cleaner and quicker.
This is one more indication that at least marginally sensible drug policy is now politically discusable.