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Federal sentencing reform: in sharp focus for compelling reasons

What does it say about a country's criminal law policies when an estimate emerges positing that as many as 16 additional federal prisons might need to be built in the near horizon to house an ever-ballooning inmate population?

Oh, and there's this: The estimated price tag for all that construction intended to keep people behind bars runs north of $5.5 billion.

Such notable -- some readers might prefer an appellation more along the lines of "staggering" or "eye-popping" -- numbers come courtesy of a recently written article appearing in The Hill, a widely read Washington, D.C.-based publication addressing politics and matters of national scope.

That piece notes the obvious, namely, that federal prisons across the United States are sorely overtaxed by inmate overloading.

Here are a couple of additionally germane numbers for readers to digest: Reportedly, federal penitentiaries are running on average at about 136-percent capacity, with some prisons having bloated inmate populations that are about 50 percent above stated capacity.

Is there an overriding factor contributing to such swelling? That is, can a single catalyst be pointed to that immediately sheds light on why America's prisons are dangerously overcrowded?

There certainly is, and it can be traced back to drug laws enacted in prior decades that resulted in mandatory minimum sentences for high numbers of federal prisoners.

Many commentators on drug policy, including the writer contributing the above-cited article to The Hill, lament that mandatory minimums have had the nasty effect of ensnaring high numbers of nonviolent drug offenders who would be better served by shorter sentencing or even alternative dispositions (think probation, community programs, treatment centers and so forth). Reportedly, federal drug offenders presently serve "average" prison terms of about 11 years, with about half of all inmates locked up in federal facilities being convicted of some type of drug offense.

One alternative being suggested to the construction of all those prisons noted above would be reform legislation that takes the sting out of mandatory minimum sentencing outcomes that are routinely pushed by many prosecutors. Making adjustments and emphasizing other outcomes such as those referenced in the preceding paragraph would logically reduce prison bloat, especially if changes were applied retroactively.

There is no question that criminal sentencing reform is a hot-button topic presently across the country, both in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill.

We will continue to duly report material developments that occur to readers.

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