Senate Introduces Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Bill

By Joan Neal
October 12, 2015

They said it couldn’t be done. Six months ago, if you had asked people who follow federal criminal justice reform if there would be a bill on this issue coming out of the 114thCongress, you would have gotten a big laugh. Even Hill staffers would have had a one word answer “No.”

the Senate recently surprised everyone by doing just that. A group of nine Senators from both parties held a press conference to introduce The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 which, by their own description, calls for the most significant reforms of the criminal justice system in decades and saves taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.

The bill includes both sentencing and prison reform. With regard to sentencing, some of the key provisions of the bill target and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent drug offenses; reduce the three-strike penalty from life imprisonment to 25 years; apply certain provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act and other sentencing reforms retroactively; enhance mandatory sentencing for violent firearms offenders and unlawful possession of firearms; and address mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence.

To address the burgeoning federal prison population, the bill requires the implementation of evidence-based recidivism reduction programming that not only enhances rehabilitation but also enables offenders to earn ‘credits’ for time served; requires a post-sentencing risk and needs assessment for all prisoners; limits solitary confinement for juveniles and establishes eligibility for parole for juveniles sentenced to life terms as adults or to terms longer than 20 years. Additional administrative reforms are included that require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to operate more efficiently and effectively.

Among the co-sponsors of the bill is the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), previously a staunch opponent of reducing mandatory minimum sentences and other reforms to the criminal justice system. A concerted advocacy effort on the part of the faith community and our national and grass roots partners had a positive impact on his eventual ‘change of heart’. The other original co-sponsors include – Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Tim Scott (R-SC).

While ultimate passage of The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is not guaranteed, it is an extremely encouraging sign that Congress can accomplish big things if legislators work together for the common good.

Ok, House of Representatives – it’s your turn!

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