Today, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to advance the Sentencing Reform Act. The bill, introduced by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI), and sponsored by thirty other Representatives, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, expand the federal "safety valve" (which allows judges to use their discretion to sentence people below statutory mandatory minimums), and make many of the sentencing reductions retroactive.
"This vote today is a significant step toward reducing the federal prison population," said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We have a bill moving in the Senate, and now we have a companion bill moving in the House, so I'm optimistic we'll have legislation on the President's desk in a matter of months."
The vote comes a few weeks after Senate Judiciary Committee advanced its sentencing reform bill by a 15-5 vote. The Senate bill includes provisions around reentry and recidivism, which the House is expected to address in a separate bill.
The House vote comes a week after the Chuck Colson Task Force and Urban Institute released a report noting that many of the individuals currently incarcerated for drug crimes had low criminal history levels and thus a low rate of recidivism. Almost half of the nearly 100,000 individuals in federal prison for drug offenses were in the lowest two criminal history categories, and another quarter had no prior criminal history at all. Among these people convicted of drug law violations, three quarters had no serious history of violence and half had no violent history whatsoever.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, the U.S.'s second highest ranking prosecutor, recently echoed the fact that the majority of persons incarcerated for federal drug law violations are non-violent, low-level offenders. In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee she stated that less than one percent of those in prison for federal drug offenses had used violence or had a threat of violence connected to their conviction, only 16 percent possessed weapons, and only seven percent were leaders of a criminal enterprise.
"Mandatory minimums and draconian sentences have had a devastating impact on families and communities," said Anthony Papa, manager of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years on a first-time, nonviolent drug charge. "Congress can't undo the damage of the past, but they can reform these laws to allow people to come home and minimize future injustices."
The House bill now moves to the floor for a full vote.
DPA Fact Sheet: The Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race