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Bipartisan Criminal Justice Bill Would Bolster Sentencing Reforms

By Nicole Ezeh  |  November 3, 2021

Congress passed the First Step Act in 2018 with broad bipartisan support to reduce mandatory sentencing and enhance anti-recidivism programs and policies. Now the law’s prime sponsors, U.S. Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), are looking to advance the law’s goals with the introduction of the First Step Implementation Act of 2021. It is one of several bipartisan Durbin/Grassley criminal justice bills introduced this year.

The 2021 legislation would allow federal courts to retroactively apply the FSA’s sentencing reform provisions. Currently, the reforms apply only to individuals charged with crimes committed after the FSA was enacted on Dec. 21, 2018. People who received a federal sentence prior to the law’s enactment currently cannot request a sentence reduction. Retroactive application of FSA provisions would help implement the 2018 law in a manner more consistent with its legislative goals.

The implementation legislation also would broaden the FSA’s safety-valve provision by allowing courts to sentence below the mandatory minimum for nonviolent drug offenses if the court determines that the defendant’s criminal history overrepresents the likelihood of recidivism or overrepresents the seriousness of the defendant’s criminal record as a whole.

Retroactive Reforms

The bill includes reforms addressing juvenile offenses that would apply retroactively. It permits federal courts to reduce sentences imposed on individuals who committed serious offenses before the age of 18 if a court determines the offender is not a danger to the community and has already served 20 years of the sentence. The bill also provides for the sealing and expungement of juvenile nonviolent offense records.

Lastly, the new bill would require the attorney general to ensure the federal criminal records they share for employment purposes are accurate. This provision aims to decrease employment-related barriers to successful prisoner reentry for the 10 million individuals returning home from detention every year.

While the new bill applies only to federal crimes and courts, federal efforts to reduce recidivism and prioritize prisoner reentry have a profound impact on state and local communities. When released, federal prisoners return to their local communities, and their states support the important programs that facilitate their reentry. Federal reforms that reduce barriers to reentry can save state taxpayers money and improve the lives of the formerly incarcerated and their communities, as NCSL stated in a letter sent to Congress in support of the First Step Act.

The bill is currently awaiting action in the Senate.

Nicole Ezeh is a legislative specialist in NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Program.

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