CHN: Criminal Justice Reform Could Still Happen

Advocates who are pushing for criminal justice reform might have been feeling like they are on a roller coaster lately, with good reason. When the Senate Judiciary Committee passed (15-5) the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) last October, things were looking good. However, more than four months have passed since then, and despite action by many advocacy groups, the bill has not yet been taken up by the full Senate. Some reports last week speculated that it might not happen at all – that some Republicans were not inclined to give Democrats something they would consider a win and something that President Obama called for in his State of the Union address. Since the bill is opposed by some Republicans, including presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), and since the Senate Judiciary Committee is already feeling heat from many advocates for saying the Senate shouldn’t hold hearings or a vote to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, it was thought by many that the bill might be dead.
However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) said last Tuesday that revisions to the bill that would garner enough support to pass Congress would be announced soon. Details around what those revisions are have not yet been released, so advocates remain cautiously optimistic that the revisions will be acceptable and not gut major provisions of the legislation in order to gain additional support.

The version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that passed out of committee would eliminate the harsh three-strike mandatory life sentence for certain federal crimes, reduce federal penalties for some nonviolent drug-related and other crimes, and reduce sentences for inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses before federal law was changed in 2010 to address the extreme disparities in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine offenses that magnify racial inequalities. It would provide avenues for prison reform to reduce recidivism, allowing prisoners to reduce their sentences by participating in education programs, drug rehabilitation, a prison job or similar activities. It would also address the treatment of youth in the federal system, specifically in the areas of solitary confinement and life without parole sentences for juveniles.  While there are few juveniles in the federal prison system, it is hoped that these changes could be models for state correctional reforms.

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