The NCSL Blog

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By Lucia Bragg

While Congress has paid considerable attention to immigration and the budget so far in 2018, efforts to reform the federal criminal justice system also have made progress.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Credit: CNN.After a lengthy markup session on Feb. 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed comprehensive bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation.

S. 1917, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, is sponsored by Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is pictured at left. It was co-sponsored by 22 other senators from both political parties. The bill includes significant changes to both the front (sentencing) and back (re-entry) ends of the prison system.

On the front end, the bill would increase judicial discretion in sentencing firearm offenders, nonviolent offenders or those with broader criminal histories. It would reduce enhanced penalties for specified nonviolent repeat drug offenders and end the mandatory life sentence for three-time drug offenders.

The bill also contains provisions strengthening sentences, by allowing enhanced penalties to apply to previously convicted violent offenders and drug felons; apply new mandatory minimums for crimes related to interstate domestic violence violations or weapons sales to blacklisted countries; and allow the addition of five years to sentences involving fentanyl-laced heroin trafficking.

On the back end, the bill aims to reduce recidivism rates through pre-release prison programming and would use evidence-based and individualized risk assessments to assign inmates to certain programs. This would incorporate opportunities for early release or home confinement and span education, job training and drug rehabilitation.

For juveniles, the bill would limit solitary confinement, increase opportunities for parole, and provide for sealing and expungement of criminal records. The bill also contains compassionate release allowances for terminally ill or elderly inmates.

It takes a broader aim at reform by redirecting savings accrued from the act to establish the National Criminal Justice Commission, tasked with undertaking a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system.

The bill awaits consideration by the full Senate, though it’s unlikely to get floor time until the chamber can wrap up immigration negotiations.

Criminal justice reform legislation, however, has yet to make significant progress in the House. Bipartisan bills HR 4261, the SAFE Justice Act, and HR 3356, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, may see committee action this year.

Criminal justice reform also was the subject of a recent meeting at the White House that included criminal justice reform advocates, President Donald Trump, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Senior Adviser Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Lucia Bragg is a policy associate with NCSL's State-Federal Relations Division.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.