A bipartisan group of senators have reached a long-elusive deal on criminal justice reform, with a proposal that would reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses and allow well-behaved inmates to earn time off their prison terms.
After months of negotiations, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s agreement — dubbed the Criminal Justice Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 — was set to be introduced Thursday morning during a 10 a.m. press conference.
The bill, which affects inmates coming through the federal prison system, has the crucial backing of Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who opposes across-the-board repeal of mandatory minimum sentences and was a cautious voice in the talks.
The main negotiators of the sentencing aspect of the pact were Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Other participants included Republican Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; and Tim Scott, R-S.C.
“We are excited about this because we believe we can reverse a few bad trends that have occurred over the last few decades,” Lee told The Daily Signal in an interview.
“Since the 1980s, the federal prison population has increased nearly tenfold,” Lee continued. “But this does not reflect a tenfold increase in the commision of crime. Instead, it reflects the bad trends. One of them is the overcriminalization of the law. One of them is the over-federalization of criminal law, and yet another involved the all-too-frequent use of using minimum mandatory penalties.”
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, most of which were enacted during the tough-on-crime period of the 1980s, require binding prison terms of a particular length and prevent judges from using their discretion to apply punishment.
Over the last year or so, varied groups and people from left and right, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Koch brothers, have increased their pressure on Congress to take on surging prison costs and incarceration rates, trends that advocates blame on excessive mandatory minimums.
“Minimum mandatory penalties are not always bad,” Lee said. “Some of them work just fine. The problem is that some of them impose sentences that are plainly excessive in relation to the behavior they are trying to punish.”
President Obama is also pushing for criminal justice reform, and a number of states, including southern conservative states with some of the most overcrowded prison systems, have acted on their own.
Now, Congress finally has a real proposal that should gain traction.
A summary of the proposed Judiciary Committee legislation, obtained by The Daily Signal, reveals some significant reforms, meant to limit the impact of the harshest mandatory minimum prison sentences.
Many of the reforms are retroactive, meaning they will benefit people already incarcerated, not just future offenders.
“This appears to be meaningful reform that will address some of the worst scenarios of mandatory minimums,” says Molly Gill of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit that advocates for full repeal of mandatory minimums.
“It’s a big reform because it will address some of the most unjust cases we see,” Gill told The Daily Signal.
Some of the new reforms proposed by senators include:
– Reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain nonviolent repeat drug offenders. Under current law, offenders who have two or more prior felony drug offenses are automatically sentenced to 20 years in prison or life without parole. Under the Judiciary Committee proposal, they would get 15 or 25 years.
“We have made significant changes to some of the minimum mandatory penalties that are based on drug quantity. So if you are someone who is convicted of a nonviolent drug offense and you are not a kingpin — let’s say you are low-level mule or a courier — we have made some adjustments to those recognizing that in some instances, the penalty has been excessive.
– Broadening an already existing “safety valve” law that’s supposed to keep people from receiving mandatory minimum sentences if they pass a five-part test. The Judiciary Committee bill makes the criminal record aspect of the safety valve test more forgiving, so that fewer nonviolent, low-level offenders will receive mandatory minimum drug sentences.
“This allows us to expand the circumstances in which a judge is able to exercise more discretion.”
– Reducing the mandatory minimum prison sentence for repeat drug offenders who used or carried a gun during the crime. Under the bill, a repeat offender would get 15 years, not 25.
– Making retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, a law passed by Congress and signed by Obama that reforms the 100-to-one ratio between powder cocaine and crack cocaine prison sentences.
– Allowing prisoners deemed low or medium risk to earn time off their prison sentence by completing re-entry programs including education programs, drug rehab, job training, and religious studies.
– Banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody, with limited exceptions.
– Permitting the “compassionate release” of inmates who have served two-thirds of their sentence, are older than 60, and terminally ill.
– Creating new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and for crimes where the offender provides weapons to prohibited countries and terrorists.
The Judiciary Committee deal provides a blueprint for the full Senate to consider.
In the House, meanwhile, Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., are lobbying for their own legislation, known as the SAFE Justice Act. And according to NPR, two leaders of the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and John Conyers, D-Mich., are writing their own bills.
The hope for advocates would be to get a bill to Obama’s desk before the 2016 presidential election.
“This looks like a very positive step in the right direction,” said John Malcolm, the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
“It includes frontend and backend reforms and contains several helpful provisions,” Malcolm said. “It’s significant that Chairman Grassley has signed on since has he been traditionally opposed to any mandatory minimum reform. It will probably pass the Senate and absolutely makes it more likely something can get done before the presidential election.”