CHN: New Sentencing Reform Bill Introduced with Bipartisan Sponsorship

In a hyper-partisan Congress, bipartisan support for significant legislation is increasingly rare. But recognition is growing that prison terms are far too long, discriminatory, ineffective and expensive. In a significant development, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-IA) joined with nine other key senators to cosponsor the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123), introduced on October 1. All of the cosponsors serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including the senior Democrat, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), as well as Senators Booker (D-NJ), Cornyn (R-TX), Durbin (D-IL), Graham (R-SC), Lee (R-UT), Schumer (D-NY), Scott (R-SC), and Whitehouse (D-RI).
The bill would eliminate the harsh three-strike mandatory life sentence, replacing it with a 25-year term. Under current federal law, someone who has two convictions for “serious” crimes and then is convicted in federal court of a “serious violent felony” receives an automatic life sentence. Minimum sentences for a second offense would be reduced from 20 to 15 years.

Half of federal prisoners are serving because of drug offenses. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act reduces federal penalties for a number of crimes, but emphasizes reductions related to illegal drugs, especially lower-level and nonviolent offenses. Mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders would be shortened (from 20 to 15 years) and applied more narrowly, limited to serious drug felonies and serious violent felonies. Offenders with prior convictions for serious violent crimes and/or serious drug felonies can still receive long sentences.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would address the extreme disparities in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine offenses that were in effect before 2010. Before then, someone possessing crack cocaine would get the same mandatory minimum sentence as a person possessing 100 times as much cocaine in powder form. While that disparity was reduced in 2010 (to 18 to 1), nothing was done to reduce sentences for those already imprisoned. S. 2123 would allow those prisoners to petition for shorter sentences. The differing treatment of cocaine offenses has dramatically magnified racial disparities in sentencing, making this provision of S. 2123 one of its most significant.

The bill also limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons and allows parole for inmates serving life sentences who were convicted as juveniles (the federal correctional system does not provide for parole). The bill also allows nonviolent juvenile offenders to have their records sealed or expunged in certain circumstances. These provisions affect only a very small number of federal prisoners (only about 50 are juveniles).

The bill allows prisoners to reduce their sentences by participating in education, a prison job, or similar activities.

While the sentencing reforms reduce the length and application of mandatory minimum sentences, the bill also adds new mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic violence and most likely for selling weapons to terrorist groups or certain countries.

The bill is headed for a mark-up in the Senate Judiciary Committee by the end of October. Its strong bipartisan support should help it to move, but the difficulties of enacting new legislation by the end of the current session are forbidding.