The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act Is a Compromise, but a Pretty Good One

Last week a bipartisan group of senators, led by conservative Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.

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. It’s unclear why legislators feel that terrorism suspects are treated too leniently by the current sentencing structure, and taking discretion away from judges to impose sentences based on the particular facts of the cases before them is a step back.  Also on the negative side, the bill increases the mandatory minimum for felons caught in possession of a firearm from 10 to 15 years.  There are nearly 6 million convicted felons in the United States, a great many of them having been convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Once again, it is unclear why legislators, rather than judges and juries, should determine the proper punishment for a felon who is caught with a firearm, or why the current 10 year mandatory prison sentence is considered insufficient.

Overall, however, 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.

For the full text of the proposed legislation, click here.

For a section-by-section summary of its provisions, click here.

And for further analysis from the excellent Families Against Mandatory Minimums, click here.