As a result of increasing crime rates and a crack cocaine epidemic fueling urban gang wars in the mid- 1980s, Congress acted to mandate minimum sentences for federal drug offenders and life time sentences for three time drug or violent felony convictions. In addition, these criminal justice reforms treated crack and powder cocaine offenses differently. As a result of these actions the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the number of incarcerations in the United States in 2013 is five times higher than in 1980.
In September of 2015, the United States Senate introduced a piece of legislation that would reduce or eliminate minimum sentencing for nonviolent federal drug offenders. The name of the bill is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This piece of legislation could result in a significant number of prisoners reducing the amount of time they will serve on their current convictions. The legislation also includes provisions that would help prisoners transition back into society. The legislation gained bipartisan support by emphasizing the cost of incarceration and also emphasizing the disproportionate number of African Americans who are incarcerated.
Advocates for reform, including President Barack Obama, believe that there is little evidence to suggest that stricter mandatory penalties discourage people from breaking the law. In addition, they believe that the disproportionate number of minorities in federal prisons is a result of racial bias and a disparity between the amount of time given to crack versus powder cocaine offenders.
Opponents of reform contend that the stricter sentencing and mandatory minimums have saved lives and reduced violent crime. They claim that the cost of incarceration pales in comparison to both the social and actual cost of increased crime and drug use. In addition, they believe that the disproportionate number of federal prisoners who are either black or hispanic has little to do with racial bias and more to do with direct consequences of criminal behavior.