After a years-long battle between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, the Judiciary Committee introduced watershed legislation on Thursday that could drastically impact criminal justice at the federal level. With the support of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the committee’s conservative chair and a longtime opponent of criminal justice reform, the bipartisan bill could lead to significant changes to federal sentencing.
But some criminal justice advocates believe the possible reforms do not go far enough. To win Grassley’s approval, mandatory minimums are still on the table for certain crimes — and expanded for others.
The new Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act reduces mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders. Enhanced mandatory sentences, which have kept nonviolent offenders behind bars for extended time, would also be restricted to people who commit serious drug offenses and violent crimes. The Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the mandatory sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine, would be applied retroactively — impacting at least 6,000 people behind bars. Moreover, the bipartisan bill scales back the federal three-strikes rule for certain drug offenses, but includes mandatory life sentences for people convicted of two “serious violent felonies” plus a “serious drug offense.”
“One of the greatest accomplishments of the bill is the scope and comprehensive review that they’ve taken to various aspects of the system,” Executive Director Christine Leonard of the Coalition for Public Safety told ThinkProgress. “It’s looking at people who would be subject to sentences in the future. They’re looking at people who are serving their sentences now, and within each of those categories, taking a closer look at particularly vulnerable populations like the elderly and youth. It’s a completely different paradigm and I think the impact will be far-reaching.”
While the bill is considered historic, many believe the reduction of certain mandatory minimums is not enough, and are concerned that the bill also expands minimum sentences for firearm carriers, domestic violence offenders, and people supporting terrorism.
“What we’d like to get to is what President Obama recommended during his NAACP speech: reducing or altogether eliminating mandatory minimum sentences,” Nazgol Ghandnoosh of the Sentencing Project told ThinkProgress. “We know that these sentences, especially at the federal level, are a major driver of long prison sentences and therefore a major driver of mass incarceration.”
“We’d rather have judges exercise their discretion in sentencing. We don’t believe that we would be at risk of seeing lenient sentences or seeing a major reduction in plea bargain rates,” she continued. “That’s one of the reasons that some senators continue to support mandatory minimums. They want to make sure to maintain a high rate of plea deals.”
However, draconian mandatory minimums have kept low-level offenders embroiled in the system — often without a chance of release. Advocates of eliminating them altogether also point to the gross racial disparities in sentencing, which disproportionately impact black men. The high costs of imprisoning non-violent, low-level offenders for long periods of time is another major grievance shared by conservatives.
The ACLU echoed the Sentencing Project’s reservations with the new mandatory rules. “We have deep concerns about other aspects, especially the expansion of some mandatory minimum sentences. We believe that punishments must fit the crime and that a cookie-cutter approach too often gets in the way of justice,” said Executive Director Anthony Romero.
Nevertheless, the long-time advocates of criminal justice reform are optimistic about what the bill can do in the future.
“I would hope that other members of Congress and policymakers and citizens across the country will see what progress these conversations have reached in terms of this broad group of senators that have come together on this issue,” Leonard said. She believes the next frontier is implementing substantive changes at the state level.
“There’s an overwhelming number of people sentenced in the state populations, and [they] also need to be reviewed. Some states have already adopted reforms, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”
Ghandnoosh also thinks lawmakers should pivot to what happens upon inmates’ release.
“We have to remember that most people in federal prison have drug convictions. When people come out of prison with a drug conviction, they’re barred from access to a lot of federal benefits,” she noted. “In many states they’re barred from food stamps and cash assistance. We have to think not just about who we’re sending to prison and how long we’re keeping them there but also think about how to reduce the barriers that we’ve imposed for people after they’re released.”
“[The bill is] so significant because it brings together bipartisan leadership, including Senate leadership that had been reluctant to support criminal justice reform in the past. It begins to exercise the muscle for bigger reforms in the future.”