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It didn't get much media attention, but if you go to page 654 of the 655-page the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010, signed by President Barack Obama on Oct. 28, 2009, you will find Sec. 4713, "Report on mandatory minimum sentencing provisions."
Mandatory minimum sentences have been controversial. Proponents argue they provide greater uniformity of sentencing and deter crime. Opponents say they coerce plea agreements, clog prisons with nonviolent drug offenders, and hamstring judges who are well-qualified to set effective penalties. Congress began passing mandatory-minimum sentence laws in the 1980s, the vast majority related to drug offenses, as well as gun offenses. According to a Wall Street Journal report this month, there are now about 170 such laws on the books.
Since the laws began emerging in the 1980s, the inmate population in federal prisons has exploded. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the federal inmate population went from 24,252 in 1980 to 208,668 as of Sept. 26, 2009. Prison budgets have similarly ballooned.
The review of mandatory minimum sentences included in the National Defense Authorization Act requires the U.S. Sentencing Commission -- a panel that advises judges on prison sentences -- to submit a report within a year to the House and Senate judiciary committees.
The report is to contain: a compilation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions under federal law; an assessment of the effect of those sentencing provisions on the goal of eliminating unwarranted sentencing disparity and other goals of sentencing; an assessment of the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions on the federal prison population; an assessment of how mandatory minimum sentencing provisions affect plea agreements; a detailed research study of the effect of mandatory minimum penalties; and a discussion of alternatives to mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
"It's going to be a massive undertaking," the chairman of the Sentencing Commission, William Sessions III, told the Wall Street Journal for a Nov. 12, 2009, story.
It will be the first significant review of federal sentencing laws by the Sentencing Commission since 1991.
"The time is ripe now to do a review," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "It doesn't mean they are going to do away with mandatory sentencing. We need to have current data on its impact on sentencing, the amount of inmates incarcerated and the impacts on crime. If we have all that data, we can begin have a reasonable congressional discussion about it."
In any case, Obama promised a review of mandatory minimum sentences, and very last section of the National Defense Authorization Act Obama signed into law in October does just that. We rate this one Promise Kept.