Though not comprehensive, it's a solid first step to reforming our criminal justice system and reducing prison populations.
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The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, legislation that would reduce criminal sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, is gaining traction and giving hope that mass incarceration reform is just around the corner.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was first introduced in October of 2015. It proposes reducing several federal mandatory minimum drug and gun sentences, making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive and allowing many federal prisoners to earn good time credits for rehabilitation program completion in prison. The bill also gives judges more discretion when handing out mandatory minimums.

Interestingly, the legislation also adds in a couple of mandatory minimum sentences that we don’t currently have, including 15- and 25-year sentences for those convicted of drug offenses who have a prior serious violent felony conviction, and 10 years for domestic violence resulting in death.

 

Even just the fact that the bill makes the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive is extremely significant. Currently, there are 6,500 federal inmates who would not be sentenced under current law but are stuck in prison simply because they were incarcerated before the act was passed.

The path of the bill

The act was approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, but stalled before reaching a senate vote last November.

However, on April 28, revisions to the bill were announced that made compromises with prominent critics. Notable changes included disqualifying violent felons from sentence reductions and striking out a provision in the bill that reduced the penalty for repeat drug offenders who had possessed a firearm.

The revisions landed the bill more key support among public leaders and advocacy organizations. William Fitzpatrick, on behalf of the National District Attorney’s Association, authored a letter to Senate leaders expressing support for the bill, saying that it offers low-level offenders a “chance for redemption.”

And the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Major County Sheriff’s Association both followed suit, publicly announcing support for the bill.

"As the bill gains public support and attention, it becomes more likely to be put on the senate floor for a vote."

As the bill gains public support and attention, it becomes more likely to be put on the senate floor for a vote.

If it passes in Senate, it will go to the House for a vote, and if it passes through the House than it will go to the president. President Obama has publicly stated his support for criminal justice reform and the end of mass incarceration, stating in his last State of the Union that Congress needs to work together on reform.

The revisions to the bill gained four new Republican co-sponsor senators, making the total number of co-sponsors 37.

Does it go too far?

Critics of the bill say that it takes a “soft on crime” approach that compromises public safety, while supporters say that the bill reduces prison populations in a practical way.

One notable critic is Steven Cook, who represents the National Association of Assistant District Attorneys. Cook publicly stated that the bill would “substantially harm” law enforcement’s ability to “dismantle and disrupt drug trafficking organizations.”

And James Comey, the Director of the FBI, expressed doubts about the bill, noting that “we should be mindful of how the era of falling crime rates in the early 1990s was also an era of tough sentencing.”

Does it go far enough?

Criminal justice reformists have been quick to point out that this bill is not the comprehensive overhaul of the criminal justice system we probably need.

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has stated that although the legislation is a step in the right direction, it fails to meet the bar when it comes to reforming mandatory minimums.

The act reduces a few of the harshest mandatory minimums while ignoring the 5- and 10-year sentences handed out to low-level drug offenders. It is also stingy in its allowance for judge discretion when sentencing mandatory minimums, failing to allow for exceptions in cases of mental illness and abuse.

 

The most notable piece of reform now missing from the revised legislation is the relief for offenders who possessed a firearm. Currently, offenders who possessed a firearm in addition to their crimes, even if the gun was not used in the offense, face some of the strictest mandatory minimum sentences.

Additionally, the new mandatory minimum sentences in this bill should be a cause for alarm among criminal justice reformists, as there is no way of knowing how many more people will be incarcerated as a result.

Our take

Reform of some of the mandatory minimum sentences is better than none considering the huge impact they have on our rates of mass incarceration.

So this bill, though not comprehensive, is a solid first step to reforming our criminal justice system and reducing prison populations.

We should pay attention to this legislation as it continues onto the Senate, and urge Senate members to consider putting it to a vote.

 

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Header image: Getty

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Posted 05.31.2016 - 02:15 pm EDT