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Putting federal sentencing on trial

We often forget those citizens who spend months, decades, entire adult lives behind bars. Over 2.2 million U.S. adults are incarcerated, nearly 25 percent of whose prison sentences are questionable because they committed non-violent crimes. For instance, unlike many other crimes, offenses rooted in drug use and mental health disorders are often viewed as nonviolent in nature. Because of this distinction, it is important that the U.S. prison system differentiates between treatment of violent and nonviolent offenders, at all levels of government.

About 48 percent of those held in federal prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, and 16 percent of those in state prisons are held with a drug crime as their most serious offense. As of 2014, around 356,000 people in jails and state prisons were suffering from severe mental illnesses.

Alternative-to-incarceration court programs” have been introduced into the U.S. judicial system in response to overcrowded prisons, and are most widely used for non-violent criminals. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, these programs began almost 30 years ago at the state level, but have been difficult to incorporate into the federal system. They are most widely used for offenders that present substance use or mental health disorders. However, the rate of use of alternative sentencing in appropriate cases has decreased recently. Because of this, many have pressed for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to amend the Guidelines Manual that dictates qualification for these non-incarceration programs. The alternative-to-incarceration programs should focus more attention to such programs, and extend them to the federal level.

ATI programs feature problem-solving court programs, most notably drug courts, that utilize a non-adversarial approach to justice. With a team of workers, the court uses a process of admitting, treating, monitoring, and discharging of the offenders. These participants are often those that have been convicted of drug abuse, but do not present violent crimes. Upon completing their 12–24 month program, most offenders enter a probationary period, or serve a very short time in prison, due to the expansion of “a downward departure to a non-incarceration sentence for defendants who successfully participated in them.” With a downward departure, a person may ultimately earn a less severe sentence than that which was originally given by a judge. With these programs, they may even be able to earn a sentence without any period of formal incarceration.

Such programs provide for rehabilitation efforts with a pursuit of minimizing recidivism. These problem-solving courts are helpful institutions that both minimize people in the overcrowded U.S. prisons, and provide for the offender’s recovery. Usually, most of the participants in these courts “graduate” from the programs. However, only a very small percentage of substance-use offenders participate in drug- and other problem-solving court programs. More problematic is the fact that the overall reduction in recidivism is minimal, yielding a mere 8 to 14 percent reduction. I believe this is largely due to the lack of attention, usage, and therefore minimal funding for these programs. With a greater emphasis placed on these programs in the judicial system, it is likely that they will yield more favorable results.

These programs can be expanded by extending them to the federal level. Federal offenders, especially those with drug-related crimes, often exhibit substance use and mental health disorders; in fact, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 45 percent of federal prisoners exhibit substance-dependency or histories of substance use. Because they are rooted in recovery and treatment rather than in penalty and chastisement, these ATI programs could be beneficial to federal offenders whose crimes are rooted in substance abuse and mental disorders. Like those with mental disorders, substance abusers are ill due to their dependency, and could benefit from treatments catered to their needs. Additionally, in viewing abusers not as evil criminals, but as patients, addicts will not feel antagonized by the system’s efforts.

Though Supreme Court decisions, most notably United States v. Booker, led to the notion that drug courts are “inappropriate and unnecessary for the federal criminal system,” it can hardly be refuted that many federal offenders exhibit clinical drug-reliance and engage in criminal activity to fulfill their drug dependency. Therefore, the downward departure option offered at the state level should also be extended to the federal level — a federal offender’s free life should not be valued less than that of a state offender. If the non-violent criminal is deemed to have successfully completed the treatment program, he should be able to earn a non-incarceration sentence for his crime.

Though there has been an emergence of such federal ATI programs, thanks to the Court’s decisions in Gall v. United States and Pepper v. United States, it is very limited, and seen in only 17 districts in the United Sates. Additionally, the federal system does not yet offer a type of which only enrolls all non-violent offenders.

To achieve a universally comprehensive criminal justice reform, the federal judicial system should assume its role in the effort to differentiate the treatment for violent and nonviolent offenders. Aside from saving space in overcrowded prisons, these programs could save lives, sans bars.

Sabrina Sequeira is a first-year from Springfield, N.J. She can be reached at

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