TIME SENSITIVE | Congressional Sign-On Letter to restore college financial aid eligibility to students who had lost their eligibility because of drug convictions

I received this email from DRCM and I am posting it to the HIV DATF in hopes that folks from other organizations will sign on to the attached letter: CJ Federal Savings Letter 04 04 2011

Dear Ms. Forrest:

In previous years you or your colleagues at Los Angeles County HIV Drug & Alcohol Task Force (CA) have supported efforts, coordinated by my organization and others, to restore college financial aid eligibility to students who had lost their eligibility because of drug convictions.  I am writing today to ask if your organization also takes positions on criminal justice issues.  As a member of a sentencing reform working group in the DC-based Justice Roundtable coalition, I am seeking signatories for a sign-on letter to members of Congress promoting compassionate sentencing reform.  The letter places the reforms in the context of that extremely current priority in Congress, budget savings and deficit reduction.  The letter appears below in this email and also as an attachment.

A range of organizations have signed on, including corrections groups such as the American Correctional Association and the International Community Corrections Associations; civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth; groups working for the rights of people in recovery from addiction such as the Legal Action Center; religious-based organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee, the National Council of the Churches of Christ; many others.

The deadline for signing on to this letter is close-of-business tomorrow, Friday April 29.  I apologize for the short notice.  This program at our organization is just being started and does not yet have dedicated staff, and the review of our database before sending this took longer than we hoped it would take.  If the notice is too short but you would like to be kept informed of similar efforts in the future, by all means let us know that.  We would also appreciate any updates on contact information for you or your organization, particularly if someone else is handling policy matters now.  Of course, if you would prefer not to be contacted in the future, or if you would like future communications to be limited to certain issues, let me know and I will take care of that for you too.

Thank you for considering this request, and looking forward to hearing from you.  Please feel free to contact us for further information.


David Borden, Executive Director
Drug Reform Coordination Network
P.O. Box 18402 / Washington, DC 20036
(202) 293-8340 x301 / fax (202) 362-0032

P.S. Information on the status of the college aid drug penalty can be found at http://www.raiseyourvoice.com.

Here is the letter (copy also attached):

Honorable Paul D. Ryan, Chair                                    Honorable Chris Van Hollen, Ranking Member

Committee on the Budget                                           Committee on the Budget

Honorable Harold Rogers, Chair                                 Honorable Norm Dicks, Ranking Member

Committee on Appropriations                                   Committee on Appropriations

Honorable Lamar Smith, Chair                                    Honorable John Conyers, Jr., Ranking Member

Committee on the Judiciary                                        Committee on the Judiciary

Sentencing Reform Working Group Calls for Revision of Costly, Ineffective Federal Criminal Justice Policies


Dear _________

In addition to keeping communities safe and treating people fairly, our criminal justice system should be cost-effective – using taxpayer dollars and public resources wisely.  Yet, today more Americans are imprisoned than ever before at great cost to taxpayers, with limited benefits to public safety.  In this time of fiscal crisis states – applying the principles of fiscal responsibility, accountability, and evidence-based practices – are adopting bipartisan criminal justice reforms that hold the potential for substantial cost savings while also ensuring public safety.  We urge you as leaders in the House of Representatives to examine and review costly federal criminal justice policies against less costly and more effective alternatives.

The U.S. incarcerates more people – in absolute numbers and per capita – than any other nation in the world.  In 1980, the federal prison system housed 24,000 people at a cost of $333 million.  Since then, the federal prison population has exploded, now housing 210,000 people at a cost of $6 billion – an increase of 700% in population and 1700% in spending.  The increased incarceration of drug offenders represents the most significant source of growth in the federal prison system.

In 1980, 4,749 prisoners were serving time for drug offenses, constituting about one-quarter of the federal population.[1]  By 2009, there were 95,205 sentenced prisoners with a drug conviction as their most serious offense, constituting 51% of the sentenced population.[2]

In this time of economic crisis, our government wastes precious taxpayer dollars when it incarcerates non-violent offenders whose actions would be better addressed through alternatives that hold them accountable at less cost to taxpayers.  Being sentenced to prison should be the option of last resort.  We must strengthen proven alternatives to prison, especially for low-level and non-violent offenses.

Real world experiences at the state-level have shown that legislative changes can achieve significant savings without any depreciation in public safety.  Examples of successful bi-partisan state-level reforms include:

  • Legislation passed in Texas in 2003 requiring all drug possession offenders with less than a gram of drugs be sentenced to probation instead of jail time;
  • Legislation adopted in Oklahoma that will expand eligibility for community sentencing and increase the use of parole for nonviolent offenders;
    • Legislative changes in Kentucky that strengthen parole eligibility for certain low-level felony offenses and make individuals who complete drug treatment or education programs eligible to receive an earned discharge credit of 90 days;
    • Mississippi’s 2008 legislation that reduces time-served for certain categories of non-violent offenders; and
    • South Carolina’s 2010 sentencing reform package that removes mandatory minimums for first-time offenders.

Reforms similar to those embraced in Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Mississippi, and South Carolina are being implemented in a variety of states, and these changes have led to the first overall decline in state prison populations since 1980.

Successful fiscally responsible reforms employed at the state level should serve as a model for the federal criminal justice system.  Additionally, we urge policy leaders in the House of Representatives to support the following criminal justice reforms which will increase public safety while reducing the federal deficit.

  • Expand Use of Deferred Adjudication and Expungement of Criminal Records for Low-Level Offenders

Congress should expand the Federal First Offender Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3607, to allow judges to defer judgment and sentencing for certain low-level offenders, to avoid incarceration and a conviction record.   Upon an individual’s successful completion of a term of probation, the charges would be dismissed and the record expunged.

  • Institute Review Process to Consider Modification of Sentence After a Period of Years

Congress should enact legislation to authorize a judicial panel or other judicial decision maker to hear and rule upon applications for modification of sentence from prisoners who have served a substantial number of years, similar to a proposal currently under consideration by the American Law Institute.  Such a “second look” policy will reduce overcrowding and costs, while also creating additional incentives for inmates to engage in service, education and vocational activities.

  • Make Retroactive Congressional Reforms to Crack Cocaine Sentencing

Congress should pass legislation to extend the application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to people whose conduct was committed prior to enactment of the new law.  If both the statute and guideline changes were made retroactive, U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that as many as 24,000 people would be eligible to apply for and potentially receive relief over a 30-year period.  Within the first year of retroactive implementation, as many as 7,000 people could be eligible for early release generating a cost savings of over $200 million in the first year alone.

  • Enhance Elderly Prisoner Early Release Programs

The average cost of housing elderly prisoners is between two and three times that of younger prisoners.  At the same time, aging is correlated with diminishing risk of recidivism.  Incarcerating elderly, nonviolent inmates who no longer pose a threat to the community wastes enormous sums of federal resources and these costs will continue to rise as the elderly prison population grows.  Forty-one states have already embraced some version of a limited early release program for elderly inmates, and for example, Congress could reauthorize and expand the provision of the Second Chance Act that included a pilot program to allow for the early release of elderly prisoners.

  • Expand Time Credits for Good Behavior

The federal prison system’s method of calculating earned credit reduces a prisoner’s sentence to a maximum credit of 47 days per year – below the 54 days intended.  This decision results in unnecessary increases in prison sentences at significant cost.  By clarifying the statutory language, Congress could save an estimated $41 million in the first year alone.  Congress should also quickly implement a Department of Justice proposal creating a new good time credit that can be earned for successful participation in recidivism-reducing programs, such as education or occupational programming.

  • Restore Proportionality to Drug Sentencing

The excessive mandatory minimum sentences associated with drug offenses have led to an overrepresentation of drug offenders in the federal criminal justice system, many of whom are low-level and nonviolent.  Restoring federal judicial discretion in drug cases by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences would ensure that defendants receive punishments that are proportional to the offense they committed and do not ignore culpability.

There is a growing recognition that our criminal justice system – like other government systems – must be evidence-based, meet clear performance measures and withstand the scrutiny of fiscal, and cost-benefit analysis.  Policy makers can replace unnecessary and excessive prison sentences with proven alternatives that hold people accountable while, at the same time, saving taxpayer dollars.  The Sentencing Reform Working Group and its allies look forward to working with your office to advance these important principles.  If you need additional information, please do not hesitate to contact us at _______.

[1] Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003.  “Federal Prison Population, and Number and Percent Sentenced for Drug Offenses.  United States, 1970-2004.”

[2] West, Heather C., William J. Sabol, and Sarah J. Greenman.  2010.  “Prisoners in 2009.”  Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

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