By Phillip Smith
A bipartisan group of senators including heavyweights like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin rolled out comprehensive sentencing reform legislation Thursday. The bill aims at reducing prison sentences for some drug offenders and seeking to curb recidivism by bolstering reentry programs for prisoners. The legislation would, however, also expand mandatory minimum sentences in some for some non-drug offenses.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is also cosponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ).
It is arguably the most sweeping legislation to roll back drug war excesses yet, and it represents "small government" conservatives cooperating with liberals and civil rights advocates -- a remarkable step in this era of poisoned partisan relations in Washington. If passed, it would free some currently serving prisoners, as well as cut sentences for future offenders.
The bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening ways defendants with minimal non-felony criminal histories can avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. The bill also reduces certain mandatory minimums, providing judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences, and preserves "cooperation incentives" to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins.
In addition to reducing prison terms for some offenders through sentencing reform, qualifying inmates can earn reduced sentences through recidivism reduction programs outlined in the CORRECTIONS Act introduced by Cornyn and Whitehouse. The bill also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act and certain statutory reforms that address inequities in drug sentences.
According to a summary provided by Sen. Grassley's office, the bill:
Reforms and Targets Enhanced Mandatory Minimums for Prior Drug Felons: The bill reduces the enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision, but it allows those enhanced penalties to be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies.
Broadens the Existing Safety Valve and Creates a Second Safety Valve: The bill expands the existing safety valve to offenders with more extensive criminal histories but excludes defendants with prior felonies and violent or drug trafficking offenses unless a court finds those prior offenses substantially overstate the defendant's criminal history and danger of recidivism. The bill also creates a second safety valve that gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum. But defendants convicted of serious violent and serious drug felonies cannot benefit from these reforms.
Reforms Enhanced Mandatory Minimums and Sentences for Firearm Offenses: The bill expands the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for violent firearm offenders to those with prior federal or state firearm offenses but reduces that mandatory minimum to provide courts with greater flexibility in sentencing. The bill also raises the statutory maximum for unlawful possession of firearms but lowers the enhanced mandatory minimum for repeat offenders.
Creates New Mandatory Minimums for Interstate Domestic Violence and Certain Export Control Violations: The bill adds new mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and creates a new mandatory minimum for providing weapons and other defense materials to prohibited countries and terrorists.
Applies the Fair Sentencing Act and Certain Sentencing Reforms Retroactively
Provides for Prison Reform based on the Cornyn-Whitehouse CORRECTIONS Act: The bill requires the Department of Justice to conduct risk assessments to classify all federal inmates and to use the results to assign inmates to appropriate recidivism reduction programs, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Eligible prisoners who successfully complete these programs can earn early release and may spend the final portion (up to 25 percent) of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.
Limits Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Custody and Improves the Accuracy of Federal Criminal Records
Provides for a Report and Inventory of All Federal Criminal Offenses
"This historic reform bill addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade," Grassley said. "This bill is an important component in my ongoing effort as Judiciary Committee chairman to ensure access to justice for both the victims and the accused."
"The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth," said Durbin. "Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done."
"Crafting criminal justice reform in this Congress is like a Rubik's cube, but this group of Republicans and Democrats worked hard to come up with a fair and balanced package that will make a real difference," said Schumer. "This bill would make much needed reforms to sentencing for nonviolent offenders, resulting in a much fairer criminal justice system. I'm hopeful that we can continue moving the ball forward in a bipartisan way to make the reforms our system needs."
"For decades, our broken criminal justice system has held our nation back from realizing its full potential," said Booker. "Today, we take a step forward. Mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately affected communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a promising, bipartisan step forward to help right this wrong."
Although the bill doesn't move completely away from the resort to mandatory minimums, it is still garnering general support among the civil rights, drug reform, and criminal justice reform communities.
"The legislation is recognition from leadership in both parties that the war on drugs has failed and that the harsh sentencing laws that appealed to lawmakers in the 80s and 90s have had disastrous consequences -- especially for communities of color," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. "There are things we like about the bill and things we don't, and much more action is needed to tackle mass incarceration, but this is a worthy compromise."
"In an age of intense partisan conflict, it's heartening to see lawmakers across the spectrum working together on restoring justice in this country," said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals working to end the drug war. "We could reduce the impact that drug prohibition has on people of color and for so many others who have been victims of unreasonable and ineffective drug prohibition laws. There's still a lot of work to be done, but this is a considerable step in the right direction."
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights was also on board.
"Today marks a unique moment in our history and an important step forward in making long overdue reforms to our justice system," said Wade Henderson, the group's CEO. "This bill represents the most robust bipartisan effort at criminal justice reform in years. "This harmonic convergence of left and right -- of civil rights and small government advocates -- represents a coalition of conscience that can carry this legislation to the White House. We applaud the effort and look forward to working with the cosponsors on this legislation."
Now, the bill has to actually get through Congress. Given the high-powered and bipartisan support in the Senate, prospects look good there, but whether the House will be willing to sign on remains to be seen.