With the "war on drugs" at its peak during the 70's and 80's, lawmakers were trying to find a solution to the growing drug problem across the United States. Part of that solution were mandatory minimums on the federal and state level. These minimums would put away offenders for a set amount of time regardless of circumstance.
While successful at the time, the laws passed as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 have resulted in overcrowded prisons and taxpayer dollars being used to cope with the growing number of inmates in the country. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is now trying to adjust minimum sentencing laws to better apply to today's standards.
"This is the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation," Grassley said."It doesn't harm law enforcement, it's going to make sure that people that are getting too harsh sentences now, are being treated more fairly."
The Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2015 includes changes to mandatory minimums for low level, non violent drug offenders as well as measures to ensure prisoners are better equipped to reenter society.
The U.S. Justice Action Network, a group lobbying for the reform of the criminal justice system is estimating that offenders affected, work nine fewer weeks per year and earn 40 percent less than their colleagues. Holly Harris is the executive director of the network and travels throughout the country to initiate change and reform.
"When these individuals are unable to find good jobs they very often return to crime return to prison and reenter this cycle of failure," Harris said.
Judge Jeffrey Neary agrees, he believes that among other changes, reform in rehabilitating offenders is key to avoid more crime and reduce local and national crime rates effectively.
"A person who might not be so inclined to commit an offense who has a mandatory minimum sentence imposed," Neary said. "Under some circumstance requiring them to spent that extra time in jail and not be eligible for parole might make them more apt to commit more crimes."
Apart from tackling the issue of rehabilitation, Grassley's bill is also reforming the way minimum's are handed out. As of now, a judge does not have any discretion in mandatory minimum cases. They are forced to enforce them without being able to consider the circumstances of a crime.
"Judges need to have more discretion," Priscilla Forsyth, an attorney at law in Sioux City said." The judge is the one that has all the evidence in front of them about what happened.The judge is the one who made have heard the trial. Every person is different, every set of facts is different and the Judge should be able to adjust their sentences."
Senator Grassley's committee will introduce the criminal justice reform bill in early December before the Christmas break. He then hopes to have a decision when session resumes in January. But according to Harris, change is imminent.
"The state is so ripe for reform," Harris said. Thanks to Chairman Grassley and what he has been able to do at the federal level there has been great conversation generated in Iowa and there is certainly a need."
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