by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 was introduced this month by a bi-partisan group of US Senators that includes Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ). Adam Bates describes the bill at Cato.org and suggests that, all things considered, it represents a significant step in the right direction:
The bill clearly represents a compromise between criminal justice reformers and more conservative law-and-order legislators, but the aggregate effect on the criminal justice system would be a substantial improvement.
On the positive side, the bill reduces several mandatory minimums relating to non-violent drug and firearm offenses (notably reducing the "three strikes" life sentence to 25 years), adds several safety valves to allow judges to adjust the penalties for certain non-violent offenses, and in many cases works retroactively to lower the excessive sentences of those already convicted of the relevant crimes. Further, the bill would require the federal government to compile and publish a database of all federal crimes, their elements, and their potential penalties. In addition, the bill would restrict the use of solitary confinement on juvenile offenders, create a new system for assessing the risk level of federal prisoners, among several other corrections changes.
On the other hand, the bill creates brand new federal mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic violence crimes that result in death and for providing prohibited support to terrorist organizations…. Also…the bill increases the mandatory minimum for felons caught in possession of a firearm from 10 to 15 years….
Overall…the bill would surely reduce many more sentences than it would extend. Thousands of current non-violent inmates and countless future inmates will have years or even decades taken off of their excessive sentences. While the bill stops well short of putting an end to mandatory minimums, as the Justice Safety Valve Act would do, and still imposes harsh sentences on many categories of non-violent offenders, many of its provisions are steps in the right direction and serve as further proof that now is a ripe moment for criminal justice reform on both sides of the aisle.
Julie Stewart, the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums also offers praise. She calls the bill one of "the most significant pieces of sentencing reform legislation in a generation" and adds:
This bill isn’t the full repeal of mandatory minimum sentences we ultimately need, but it is a substantial improvement over the status quo and will fix some of the worst injustices created by federal mandatory sentences…. [It]will save countless families unnecessary hardship in the future, but just as important, it will provide relief to thousands of prisoners currently serving excessive sentences. Retroactivity is the right thing to do morally and economically. These reforms will help reduce the prison population and shift more resources to crime prevention and rehabilitation.
A similar bill, the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, was introduced in the House this month.
The problems of over-criminalization and excessive incarceration have been the subject of increasing bi-partisan concern in recent years, and the bills introduced this month are not the first sentencing reform bills to be introduced this year — nor, as Jacob Sullum notes at Forbes.com, are they the most radical:
The Justice Safety Valve Act, a bill introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)…would have effectively abolished mandatory minimums by letting judges depart from them in the interest of justice…. The Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill introduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)…would have cut mandatory minimums for drug offenses in half. But the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act does include several elements of the latter bill, including crack retroactivity, a wider safety valve, and elimination of the mandatory life sentence for third-time drug offenders.
While he would have preferred either of these previous proposals, on balance Sullum agrees with the other commentators about the new Senate proposal:
Despite the bill’s flaws…it represents a major improvement on the current system, making it less mindlessly punitive.
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