Prison mandatory minimums reform

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SARASOTA, FL- Federal prisons are currently at 40 percent over capacity.  But changes to the drug sentencing laws are expected turn around that statistic.  Many say the measure will promote alternative sentences like treatment. 

"This is obviously better than jail or prison," said Jason Lapp, as he describes a popular alternative to going to jail.  Lapp is one of the many Americans who's had a run in with the law.  He was ordered by a judge to enter a program at the first step treatment facility in Sarasota, a penalty a lot less than what he was facing.

"I had some drug charges, I believe it was minimum 3 max 5 years." added Lapp.

But he's lucky.  According to information from the Bureau of Prisons, drug offenders make up about 47% of the federal prison population. With many of those charges requiring minimum sentences that many say don't fit the crime.

"The mandatory minimum sentences have really tied the hands of judges in determining what an appropriate sentence is based on a circumstance.  And, its resulted in disproportionately harsh sentences in circumstances that may be more sympathetic than others," said Andrea Mogensen.

The law says a person caught manufacturing, possessing, or distributing a controlled substance would serve a ten-year mandatory minimum penalty with a maximum term of life imprisonment.  But, officials say those penalties have been unfairly leveled on against minorities.

"Statistically it bears out that a disproportionate number of minorities are over impacted by the sentencing structure," said Mogensen.

A 2010 US Department of Sentencing Commission Report shows more than 23,000 federal drug cases in 2010.  About 6,500 of those were black offenders and 41% of those cases received the mandatory minimum sentence for compared to 10,304 Hispanics with 39% of that group receiving the mandatory penalty.  While of the 6,278 white offenders and only 15% of the group got the minimum sentence.  But the racial disparity is just part of the concern with mandatory minimums.  Many say the cost to tax payers is an even bigger problem.

"In the research it shows that incarceration is definitely more expensive that treatment.  So, it cost tax payers more money to put them in jail than it would be to put them into an episode of treatment," Nancy Page with First Step.   Page in addition Page says in the defendant isn't getting treatment in prison when they are released they will go back to the same environment and possible offend again, further burdening the tax payer. 

As of August 8 there have been more than 219,000 federal inmates. Figures from the Urban Institute show its between 21,000 and 25,000 a year to house a inmate.

In addition, to changing the mandatory minimum sentencing policy. The Attorney General also plans to allow for more compassionate releases of elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences and pose no threat to the public.