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The Federal SRA: A Social Experiment Gone Astray

In 1984 Congress confronted the rise in drug and firearm related crimes by instituting a social experiment. The social experiment became known as the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1984. Congress assumed longer federal prison sentences--without parole--would serve as a serious deterrent to crime, particularly in the case of those convicted on federal drug and firearm charges. The SRA dealt exclusively with federal sentences and certain facets of federal prisons. To manage the philosophical approach to crime, Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission (Commission) under the SRA. Congress then armed the Commission with the power to promulgate Federal Sentencing Guidelines--to be applicable to those arrested and later convicted on federal charges after the date of the SRA's inception.

The SRA abolished federal parol and opposed rehabilitation. Consequently, the SRA rejected imprisonment as a means of promoting rehabilitation and stated that punishment should serve retributive, educational, deterrent, and incapacitation goals. See, e.g. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2). In addition, Congress claimed the SRA was created to offset serious disparities among the sentences imposed by federal judges upon similarly situation offenders and make certain the actual date of a prisoner's release. See Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989).

Nine years have shown the SRA to be ineffective, and longer federal prison sentences--without parole--not to be a serious deterrent to crime. The primary factor for continuing any social experiment is its success. Up to this point, Congress has failed to present evidence indicating that the remedial purposes of the SRA (longer/non-parolable sentences) has served an important governmental objective and is substantially related to achievement of those objectives in its fight against crime. If longer federal prison sentences have not proved to be an effective deterrent to crime; if sentencing disparities remain high; and if prison administrators have all but abandoned educational objectives; then why preserve the SRA in its present form? Also, Congressional members as well as federal judges have cited a number of deficiencies existing in the SRA, which has lead them to believe the SRA is too perplexing and is unmanageable. Consequently, there is absolutely no proof of a compelling need for continuing the SRA in its current form. The expected cure (SRA) for a social ill (crime) has not lived up to expectations, and now suffers grave side effects.

The SRA has contributed to an astounding increase in the inmate population at federal prisons. Today this inmate population is crowded forty-six percent over its capacity. Tensions are enormous, violence is on the rise, inmates are without an incentive to behave, prison costs are astronomical, and there is no relief in sight. By and large, imprisonment is a catastrophical waste of human resources. Simply put, the SRA has not worked.

The Supreme Court has held, when Congress and the President enact a law which confronts a deeply vexing national problem, it should only invalidate the statutory provision for the most compelling reasons. See Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. at 736 (concurring opinion). The federal judiciary mandates that the state carry a heavy burden of justification in instances of social experiments and classifications. Compare test wording in San Antonia School District v. Rodriquez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973); Califano v. Webster 430 U.S. 313, 316-317 (1977). One would believe that in living in the spirit of the law, the same laws applicable to the states should apply equally to the federal government. The federal government should be held accountable for the SRA--and its failure.

If Congress truly desires to make a constructive effort in confronting crime, its vision should be focused on society--not on prisons and punishments. Congress should reconsider its stance on parole, rehabilitation, and personalized sentences more so than punishment. The appropriate starting point for a solution to the societal problems of crime would be to invest in people; job training; education; programs earmarked against drugs and violence; family and community supported programs; and the creation of jobs. It is virtually unrealistic to believe crime will be reduced through longer sentences. The SRA was haphazardly created, and there is truly no compelling need to continue the ill-fated social experiment instituted under the SRA.

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