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  • Emily K. Abrams

Path To Progress: The Smarter Sentencing Act's Potential To Redefine U.S. Sentencing Norms

Over the past fifty years, the United States has witnessed a staggering increase in its prison population.[1]  Between 1973 and 2009, the nation’s prison populations increased seven-fold, at one point growing at a rate of eight percent annually.[2]  According to 2023 estimates, roughly 1.9 million individuals were incarcerated in the United States.[3]  This stark reality has fueled national discourse on the issue of mass incarceration and contributing policies such as sentencing practices.[4]  One such sentencing practice that impacts mass incarceration is statutory mandatory minimums.[5]

Mandatory minimums constrain judges’ sentencing discretion and require that they “impose a sentence of a term of imprisonment of at least the time specified in a statute, a requirement generally triggered by the offense of conviction and/or the defendant’s recidivism.”[6]  Enacted by Congress or a state legislature, mandatory minimums can be tied to the commission of a specific crime or based on a defendant’s criminal history.[7]  Today, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have a form of mandatory minimum sentencing on the books.[8]

Over the past few decades, there have been significant efforts at the federal level to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Congress has allowed judges greater flexibility in sentencing low-level, nonviolent drug offenses[9] and has worked to rectify sentencing disparities for drug offenses (such as the differences in penalties for crack versus powdered cocaine).[10]  Subsequent reforms have continued to ease mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses,[11] reflecting a broader move towards more equitable sentencing practices at the federal level.

A critical moment in the ongoing reform efforts came in March 2023 with the reintroduction and referral of the Smarter Sentencing Act to the Senate Judiciary Committee.[12]  Originally proposed in 2013, some of the Act’s key measures were incorporated into the First Step Act of 2018, but its main reforms have not yet been enacted by Congress.[13]  The Smarter Sentencing Act seeks to reduce the severity of federal mandatory minimums by “reduc[ing] statutory mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offenses, requir[ing] reporting on the impact of cost savings from the reductions, and establish[ing] a public database of federal criminal offenses.”[14]  The current bipartisan support for the Smarter Sentencing Act underscores a growing consensus on the need for further reform in the United States’ criminal justice system.[15]

By addressing the rigidity of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws and improving sentencing equity through data-driven reforms, the Smarter Sentencing Act represents a hopeful path forward.  If passed and implemented effectively, this Act could significantly mitigate mass incarceration’s impact and mark a crucial step in transforming the U.S. criminal justice system towards more just and equitable practices.



[1] Ashley Nellis, Report: Mass Incarceration Trends, Tʜᴇ Sᴇɴᴛ’ɢ Pʀᴏᴊᴇᴄᴛ (Jan. 25, 2023), https://www.sentencingproject.org/reports/mass-incarceration-trends/.

[2] Id. While the post-2010 period saw a marginal decline, the number of incarcerated individuals nationwide has remained in the millions.

[3] This statistic reflects the number of individuals confined in U.S. prisons and jails. Wendy Sawyer & Peter Wagner, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023, Pʀɪsᴏɴ Pᴏʟ’ʏ Iɴɪᴛɪᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ (Mar. 14, 2023), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2023.html. In a global context, the United States leads in the number of incarcerated individuals and currently has the highest rate of imprisonment. Global Prison Trends 2023, Pᴇɴᴀʟ Rᴇғᴏʀᴍ Iɴᴛ’ʟ 10 (Jun. 8, 2023), https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/GPT-2023.pdf.

[4] Ruth Delaney, Ram Subramanian, Alison Shames, & Nicolas Turner, American History, Race, and Prison, Vᴇʀᴀ Iɴsᴛ. ᴏғ Jᴜsᴛ., https://www.vera.org/reimagining-prison-web-report/american-history-race-and-prison.

[5] Fact Sheet: Sentencing and Mandatory Minimums, Tʜᴇ Lᴇᴀᴅᴇʀsʜɪᴘ Cᴏɴғ. ᴏɴ Cɪᴠɪʟ ᴀɴᴅ Hᴜᴍ. Rᴛs., https://civilrightsdocs.info/pdf/criminal-justice/Sentencing-Fact-Sheet.pdf (last updated Mar. 28, 2018); see generally Tʜᴇ Gʀᴏᴡᴛʜ ᴏғ Iɴᴄᴀʀᴄᴇʀᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ɪɴ ᴛʜᴇ Uɴɪᴛᴇᴅ Sᴛᴀᴛᴇs: Exᴘʟᴏʀɪɴɢ Cᴀᴜsᴇs ᴀɴᴅ Cᴏɴsᴇᴏ̨ᴜᴇɴᴄᴇs (Jᴇʀᴇᴍʏ Tʀᴀᴠɪs, Bʀᴜᴄᴇ Wᴇsᴛᴇʀɴ & Sᴛᴇᴠᴇ Rᴇᴅʙᴜʀɴ, ᴇᴅs., 2014), https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/18613/the-growth-of-incarceration-in-the-united-states-exploring-causes.

[6] Dᴀᴠᴇ S. Sɪᴅʜᴜ, Cᴏɴɢ. Rsᴄʜ. Sᴇʀᴠ., LSB10910, Wʜᴇɴ Is ᴀ Mᴀɴᴅᴀᴛᴏʀʏ Mɪɴɪᴍᴜᴍ Sᴇɴᴛᴇɴᴄᴇ Nᴏᴛ Mᴀɴᴅᴀᴛᴏʀʏ Uɴᴅᴇʀ ᴛʜᴇ Fɪʀsᴛ Sᴛᴇᴘ Aᴄᴛ? 1 (Feb. 2, 2023).

[7] See e.g., Mandatory Minimum Sentences Briefing, Lᴇɢɪs. Pʀᴏɢʀᴀᴍ Rᴇᴠ. ᴀɴᴅ Iɴᴠᴇsᴛɪɢᴀᴛɪᴏɴs Cᴏᴍᴍ. ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ Cᴏɴɴ. Gᴇɴ. Assᴇᴍʙ. (Dec. 2005), https://www.cga.ct.gov/2005/pridata/studies/mandatory_minimum_sentences_final_report.htm.

[8] Alison Siegler, End Mandatory Minimums, Bʀᴇɴɴᴀɴ Cᴛʀ. ғᴏʀ Jᴜsᴛ. (Oct. 18, 2021), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/end-mandatory-minimums.

[9] See Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, § 80001, 108 Stat. 1796, 1985 (1994).

[10] See Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372 (2010). See generally Rᴇғᴏʀᴍɪɴɢ Cʀɪᴍɪɴᴀʟ Jᴜsᴛɪᴄᴇ Vᴏʟ. 4: Pᴜɴɪsʜᴍᴇɴᴛ, Iɴᴄᴀʀᴄᴇʀᴀᴛɪᴏɴ, ᴀɴᴅ Rᴇʟᴇᴀsᴇ 119 (Erik Luna ed., 2017), https://law.asu.edu/sites/default/files/pdf/academy_for_justice/Reforming-Criminal-Justice_Vol_4.pdf.

[11] See e.g., First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No.115-391 (2018); see also Stephanie Wylie, Supreme Court Considers the First Step Act’s Lenient Sentencing Provision, Bʀᴇɴɴᴀɴ Cᴛʀ. ғᴏʀ Jᴜsᴛ. (Oct. 24, 2023), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/supreme-court-considers-first-step-acts-lenient-sentencing-provision.

[12] Press Release, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Durbin, Lee Introduce Smarter Sentencing Act (Mar. 26, 2021), https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/press/dem/releases/durbin-lee-introduce-smarter-sentencing-act; All Actions: S.1152 — 118th Congress (2023-2024), Lᴀᴡ Lɪʙʀᴀʀʏ ᴏғ Cᴏɴɢʀᴇss, https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/1152/all-actions (last accessed Feb. 10, 2024). Senators Dick Durbin and Mike Lee first introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act in 2013 but it died in committee. See Press Release, Brennan Center for Justice, The Brennan Center Applauds Introduction of Bipartisan Sentencing Reform Bill (Aug. 1, 2013), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/brennan-center-applauds-introduction-bipartisan-sentencing-reform-bill.

[13] Press Release, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Durbin, Lee Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Lower Mandatory Sentences for Certain Drug Offenses (Mar. 30, 2023), https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/press/dem/releases/durbin-lee-introduce-bipartisan-bill-to-lower-mandatory-sentences-for-certain-drug-offenses.

[14] All Information (Except Text) for S.1152 - Smarter Sentencing Act of 2023, U.S. Cᴏɴɢ., https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/1152/all-info (last visited Feb. 1, 2024).

[15] Press Release, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Durbin, Lee Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Lower Mandatory Sentences for Certain Drug Offenses (Mar. 30, 2023), https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/press/dem/releases/durbin-lee-introduce-bipartisan-bill-to-lower-mandatory-sentences-for-certain-drug-offenses.

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