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As prison populations swell, the Justice Department is seeking sentencing changes that would keep tough penalties for violent and repeat drug offenses, but provide reduced or alternative sentences for less serious offenders.
Sentencing changes, including mandatory minimum sentences established in 1984 "led to great success, but they also took a great human and fiscal toll," Jonathan Wroblewski, director of the Justice Department's policy and legislation office, wrote in an annual report sent Thursday to Patti Saris, chairwoman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
"Violent crime in the United States is now near generational lows," Wroblewski wrote in his report to the commission. "At the same time, the U.S. prison population exploded and overall criminal justice spending with it."
The U.S. Sentencing Commission is an independent government agency that sets sentencing policies for the federal courts. Each year, the commission reviews the guidelines and may act to change them. Federal law requires the Justice Department's criminal division to submit a report assessing the guidelines and recommending changes.
The commission said in a public notice that it would review and possibly amend guidelines for gun offenses, drug crimes, economic crimes and probation violations.
The letter urges the commission to consider pragmatic sentencing changes enacted at the state level as potential models for change at the federal level. Many states, faced with prison overcrowding and tight budgets, have opted for shorter sentences for non-violent offenders and more robust efforts to prevent repeat offending, the letter said.
"These changes have no doubt sprung in part out of budgetary necessity," the letter said. "But they have also come from a growing understanding of new research into what works among various approaches to sentencing and corrections."
If the government fails to control prison spending, it will have to cut in other areas, including investigations, prosecutions and prevention programs, the Justice Department's report said.
The letter also recommends revising sentencing guidelines for immigration crimes to make clearer when a past conviction triggers a higher sentence and creating provisions to account for child pornographers who use the Internet to distribute or solicit illegal images.
The Justice Department in the report suggests higher penalties for firearms trafficking and gun buyers who lie to purchase guns for other people, such as felons, who are prohibited from owning firearms.
Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY