jail prisonNot surprisingly, shortening some our of absurdly long mandatory minimum sentencing rules for non-violent drug offenders would reduce the prison population and save the government a significant amount of money.

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office looks at the financial impact of the Senate proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses. It found the law would on net save the federal government roughly $3 billion over the next decade and reduce the prison terms of roughly a quarter million people. From the CBO:

S. 1410 would amend federal law to reduce prison sentences for certain drug offenses. Based on information provided by the Department of Justice (DOJ), CBO estimates that implementing the legislation would reduce the cost of incarcerating offenders and would lead to a reduction in DOJ spending of $4 billion over the 2015-2024 period, assuming total future appropriations are reduced consistent with the projected reduction in prison population under S. 1410.

CBO estimates that enacting S. 1410 would result in about 250,000 prisoners being released from federal prisons earlier than they would under current law over the 2015-2024 period. CBO expects that many of those individuals also would receive certain federal benefits sooner than they otherwise would be eligible to receive them. Consequently, CBO estimates that enacting the legislation would increase direct spending by about $1 billion and would reduce revenues by $42 million over the 2015-2024 period.

The bill would reduce prison spending by $4 billion but once prisoners are released they stop receiving health care at prison, so many of these former prisoners would again be receiving help through federal health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid. That is the cause of most of the $1 billion in “new” direct spending. I put new in quotes because the government was already going to provide health care for these people in prison, this is mainly just moving that spending to different accounts.

Because of how the bill is designed it would save the federal government only a modest amount in the first few years but should save it significantly more in the next few decades. For example it only reduces federal spending on prisons by half a billion in from 2015-2019, but  $3.5 billion in the five years after that.

It is worth noting that an estimate by the Department of Justice on the House version of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which FDL received in response to a FOIA request, put told cost avoidance over the next ten years at $7.4 billion.  This is mainly because it seems the DoJ suspects a larger decrease in spending on construction and staff than the CBO.

This is one of the rare bills this year which would actually improve many Americans’ lives, reduce the deficit, has real bipartisan support in Congress, the backing of the Obama administration, and support from organizations across the ideological spectrum. If Congress isn’t able to approve this bill by the end of the year it would be a truly depressing sign of how bad the institution has become.

Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Firedoglake.com. Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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