Federal Sentencing Reform Advances in Congress


A number of sentencing reform bills are now pending in Congress, where bipartisan coalitions are working together to reduce mass incarceration in America. The increase in the nation’s jail and prison population from 300,000 to 2.3 million in the past 40 years has led to unprecedented prison overcrowding and soaring costs. Meanwhile, for reasons not attributable to mass incarceration, crime has dropped to its lowest levels since the 1960s. States from Texas to New York have passed legislation to reduce crime and incarceration simultaneously, and Congress is now poised to follow suit.

The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act (H.R. 2944) is sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who wrote the Patriot Act, and Rep. Bobby Scott, a progressive Democrat from Virginia, and came out of the House Judiciary Committee’s Task Force on Over-Criminalization. The act allows judges more discretion to adjust mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, so that low-level drug offenders would not be subjected to the lengthy sentences intended for major traffickers. These sentence reductions would significantly cut the number of people (now about 70,000) sent to federal prison each year.

The SAFE Justice Act also expands the compassionate release program, expands access to drug and alcohol treatment, and allows sentence reductions for people who successfully complete vocational, educational, or substance abuse programs. Its comprehensive approach includes training for prison employees to de-escalate encounters with mentally ill prisoners and changes to reduce recidivism.

The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 502/H.R. 920) aims to reduce the federal prison population by eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences. Sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), the bill has wide bipartisan support. It would expand the “safety valve” that allows judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences, a change that is supported by 60 percent of federal trial judges.

The act also applies sentencing reforms passed in 2010 to people who were sentenced under old crack and powder cocaine laws, and it reduces current mandatory drug sentences by cutting in half the 5- and 10-year minimums that currently apply to most federal drug offenders. These reforms are expected to save about $4 billion over the next nine years. The bill has wide support from civil rights, law enforcement and conservative groups.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123/H.R. 3713) was introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Like the SAFE Justice Act and Smarter Sentencing Act, this bipartisan bill seeks to reduce the number of federal prisoners by reducing the lengths of mandatory minimum sentences and giving judges more discretion in sentencing low-level offenders. But this bill makes more people subject to mandatory minimum sentences and creates new mandatory minimums for aiding terrorists and for domestic violence resulting in death.

The Sentencing Reform Act limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities and includes provisions meant to lower barriers to re-entry for former offenders. With support from the conservative Koch brothers, the NAACP, and law enforcement organizations, the Sentencing Reform Act has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is widely expected to pass Congress this year.

The Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act (S.2021/H.R. 3470), introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), is a bipartisan bill that would help remove barriers to employment in the federal government for people with criminal records. It would prohibit the federal government and federal contractors from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until the final conditional offer stage.

President Obama signed an executive order last fall that requires federal agencies to wait until later in the hiring process to ask about criminal histories. This bill goes further by covering federal contractors and requiring that employers wait to ask about criminal records until they are ready to extend a conditional offer of employment to the applicant.