New Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Bill Not Enough, Yet An Improvement, Reform Advocates Say

Reform Bill

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill on Thursday that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain categories of drug crimes and enhance re-entry programs for federal prisons.

But, reform advocates are saying that although the bill is an improvement, it does not go far enough.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, put together by a strong bipartisan coalition, is being hailed by criminal justice reform advocates as the most comprehensive set of reform proposals in recent years. It is designed to end draconian sentencing provisions, such as the 1994 federal “three strikes law,” that imposes mandatory life sentences without parole for certain categories of violent crime.

The bill also reduces mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses. It proposes — among other significant provisions — to grant judges greater powers of discretion in sentencing “low-level” nonviolent drug offenders with minimal criminal histories and allow certain categories of federal prisoners to have their sentences reduced.

The bill includes major reforms, such as banning use of solitary confinement for juvenile inmates in federal facilities. It will also allow juvenile offenders sentenced to life to be eligible for parole after a maximum of 20 years.

It proposes to bolster re-entry programs that help inmates return to their communities after serving their sentences, and thus help to reduce recidivism.

The bill is the outcome of months of bipartisan negotiations involving a powerful coalition of lawmakers.

Advocates have lauded it for its retroactive application in some cases, such as a 2010 bill that reduces disparity between sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine and powder. Thus, an estimated 6,500 inmates sentenced before 2010 for crack cocaine offenses could become eligible for reduced sentences or release.

According to Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a coalition of liberal and conservative advocacies, the bill is “more comprehensive that what a lot of people thought.”

However, reform advocates say the bill falls short of the extent of the proposals of the bipartisan House bill introduced earlier in the year.

According to Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, “This bill isn’t the full repeal of mandatory minimum sentences we ultimately need, but it is a substantial improvement over the status quo and will fix some of the worst injustices created by federal mandatory sentences.”

For instance, advocates say it should do more to end incarceration of juvenile offenders and put in its place community-based rehabilitation programs.

It also does not go as far as the House bill, the SAFE Justice Act, to reduce mandatory sentences. Rather, in some cases, it introduces new minimum terms for certain crimes, such as those involving illegal gun possession and domestic violence.

Molly Gill, with the advocacy group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, notes that the “SAFE Justice Act goes farther and is the better bill in that sense.”

Following House Speaker John Boehner’s recent announcement of intention to resign by the end of October and uncertainty about the position of his likely successors, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, there has been less optimism about the SAFE Justice Act.

Despite what advocates consider the shortcomings of the Senate bill, there is optimism that with the support it enjoys, it stands a better chance of overcoming huddles along the way.

The optimism is enhanced by the fact that unlike the immigration reform effort that failed in 2013, criminal justice reform is less contentious and there is less partisan conflict over the need for it.

Significantly, the bill won the critical support of Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Grassley, a notable advocate of tough mandatory minimum sentences, had openly expressed opposition to the bipartisan push against the “draconian” sentencing rules he co-authored.

Explaining why he finally capitulated to pressure to join the bipartisan coalition, Senator, said, “What brought me along was the ability to look at more things than reduce minimums.”

The price of his support was the creation of new mandatory minimums for offenses relating to domestic violence and terrorism.

The coalition also included Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), Tea Party stalwarts such as Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), as well as top ranking Democrats, such as Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York).

Others include Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey).

Despite the optimism, there are concerns that the strength of the bipartisan coalition may not be sufficient to guarantee its passage in a divided legislature and that the bill could flounder in the House.

If it passes, eventually, it would represent a major policy victory for President Barack Obama’s administration. Obama made criminal justice reform one of the major goals of his second term.

But, he will owe victory to the broad consensus on the need for reform that found advocacy groups with disparate political goals working together.

For instance, the U.S. Justice Action Network is a coalition of liberal groups, such as the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Center for American Progress working with conservative groups, such as FreeedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform.

[Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images]