By Danielle Green
The Sentencing Reform and Correction Act is a significant piece of legislation aimed at reforming the federal prison system. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary committee by a 15-5 vote this week and is headed to the Senate floor.
The bill has two primary components. The first principally reforms mandatory minimum sentencing laws by reducing terms and increasing the existing safety valve for certain nonviolent drug offenses. Some of the principal changes include reducing three-strike penalties from life imprisonment to 25 years, and 20-year minimum sentences are reduced to 15 years.
The bill also limits the applicability of the enhanced minimum sentences to serious drug felonies and serious violent felonies.
The legislation’s goal is to reduce sentences for low-level nonviolent offenders who were susceptible to receiving disproportionate sentences in comparison to their crimes. The only amendment introduced would have limited the reduced sentences to convictions occurring on or after the bill’s enactment date, but this amendment was defeated in the committee.
Opponents of the amendment argued the retroactive application of the bill would provide courts with the discretion to reduce nonviolent offenders’ sentences after considering a variety of factors including the possibility of recidivism and the impact on public safety.
The second component of the bill is the Corrections Act, which focuses on the expansion and implementation of anti-recidivism programming.
The bill requires the U.S. attorney general to develop risk and needs assessment systems to determine the likelihood that someone will return to prison. Such assessments will determine an offender’s eligibility for re-entry programs and drug treatment programs. The bill also looks to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and attorney general to develop best practices, and looks to states for guidance on successful recidivism reduction programs to further increase the effectiveness of the new reforms.
When looking at statistics on the BOP populations, low-level nonviolent offenders make up a considerable amount of incarcerated prisoners. Less than 1 percent of offenders had violence associated with their crime, half of all incarcerated felons had little to no criminal history and only 7 percent of the entire population consisted of drug leaders. Given those facts, the bill would target a significant portion of the federal prison population and would reduce the fiscal and human cost associated with high incarceration rates. NCSL supports this bipartisan legislation and stresses that the federal government must adopt policies that prevent recidivism when offenders are released back into their local communities.
Danielle Dean is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Law, Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.