Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act Introduced with Broad Bipartisan Support
by Derek Gilna
According to its bipartisan sponsors, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), introduced in the U.S. Senate on October 1, 2015, will have a major impact on the mandatory minimum sentencing regimen that has filled federal prisons with many non-violent offenders. Unlike all of the other legislation currently pending in Congress, this bill contains language that would have clear and unequivocal retroactive application to those already sentenced under certain mandatory minimums.
Specifically, the federal “three strikes” provision for drug offenses would be reduced from life without parole to 25 years, applied retroactively, and the 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for a second drug offense would be reduced to 15 years, also retroactively. Mandatory minimums for certain firearm-related offenses would be reduced, too.
Notably, the bill would make retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, and expand the safety-valve provision for non-violent drug offenders with non-serious criminal histories.The effect of such statutory language can not be overstated, as it will eliminate many of the procedural hoops that federal prisoners have to jump through in order to obtain judicial relief. Unfortunately, violent offenders, sex offenders and certain other prisoners are excluded, but for once, career offenders are not. The legislation would further allow some federal prisoners to earn additional good time credit for completing rehabilitative programs, and includes provisions related to juvenile offenders.
The Senate bill will of course have to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, pass the full Senate and then be approved by the House of Representatives before it can be signed by the President, who has signaled his support for the legislation. The House introduced a similar criminal justice reform bill on October 5, 2015.
“We want to make sure our federal laws and regulations effectively and appropriately punish wrongdoers, protect individual freedom, safeguard civil liberties, work as efficiently and fairly as possible, do not impede state efforts, and do not waste taxpayer dollars,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte.
Unlike other sentencing reform legislation pending in both houses of Congress, the new Senate bill has important co-sponsors. One of the architects of the legislation is Senator Charles Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has long been a “tough on crime” proponent. The bill also has the support of Senators Charles Schumer, Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin, all Democrats, as well as Republican Senators Lindsey Graham, Paul Rand and John Cornyn. This powerful lineup of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle bodes well for eventual passage of this important legislation.
Prisoners’ rights advocates have been largely supportive of the bill.
“Today is an historic moment. It’s more than symbolic. This approach exceeds expectations,” stated Christine Leonard, executive director of the Koch Industries-supported Coalition for Public Safety.
Senator Grassley agreed, saying the bill “addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade. It’s the product of thoughtful bipartisan deliberation.”
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, commented that “Thirty years of ‘tough on crime’ sentencing has created an unjust system that imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, a disproportionate number of whom are black, Latino, low-income and non-violent.”
However, in an October 2, 2015 article, Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer noted that the Senate bill is “remarkably unambitious” in addressing the problem of mass incarceration, observing that it only applies to the federal criminal justice system when ten times as many prisoners are housed in state prisons and local jails. Nor would the legislation eliminate mandatory minimum sentences; it would only reduce them, and in fact would create new mandatory minimums for some offenses.
“Overall, the bill focuses on politically safe issues – long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses are now widely unpopular,” Bauer wrote. “But it doesn’t address the main driver of mass incarceration: sentencing for violent crimes.”
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has 26 co-sponsors; it was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 22, 2015.
Sources: Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, www.thehill.com/blogs, www.politico.com, Mother Jones, www.time.com, www.famm.org
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