A bipartisan group of senators led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) on October 1, 2015 introduced comprehensive legislation aimed at recalibrating prison sentences for certain drug offenders, narrowing mandatory minimum sentences to target violent criminals, and granting judges greater discretion at sentencing for lower-level drug crimes. The package also seeks to curb recidivism by helping prisoners successfully reenter society. S. 2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA), is also sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-SC).
The SRCA bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening the authority of federal judges to sentence below set mandatory minimums for individuals with criminal histories that do not include serious drug or violent offenses. The bill also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act and certain statutory reforms that address inequities in drug sentences, a provision that would make an estimated 6,500 federal prisoners sentenced prior to the change in law eligible to petition for sentence reduction.
In addition to reducing prison terms for certain offenders through sentencing reform, the bill includes provisions from the prison reform CORRECTIONS Act introduced by Senators Cornyn and Whitehouse. These provisions would allow qualifying inmates to earn reduced sentences through participation in recidivism reduction prison programs including work, job training, drug treatment and faith-based activities.
The legislation also includes provisions to ban solitary confinement for juveniles, allows juveniles sentenced to life to seek a reduction in sentences after 20 years, and provides authority for expungement of juvenile records for most non-violent offenses.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on S. 2123 October 19. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved S. 2123 in a 15-5 vote on October 22, after rejecting several amendments.
Since the October markup, the number of Senators cosponsoring S. 2123 has grown to 28, comprised equally of 14 Republicans and 14 Democrats. However, reflected in the Judiciary Committee markup vote, there is active opposition to the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has maintained for several months that he will not schedule the bill for floor action until it gains broader Republican support. To gain that support and overcome opposition to the bill, the bipartisan cosponsors agreed changes to key provisions that more clearly limit the application of sentencing reforms to non-violent, non-serious offenders in late March 2016.
Spurred in part by the Senate, House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) reached agreement on a bipartisan House counterpart bill, H.R. 3713, the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, introduced on October 8, 2015. H.R.3713 has 21 cosponsors and has been jointly referred to the House Judiciary and House Energy and Commerce Committees.
The House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 3713 by voice vote on November 18, 2015. It also approved on November 18 by voice vote a separate bill, H.R. 4002, that contains a provision that would provide for a default criminal intent element – mens rea – for all federal criminal offenses that do not address or are silent as to a criminal intent requirement. On February 11, 2016, the House Judiciary Committee by voice vote approved H.R. 759, the Recidivism Reduction Act, a bill that closely parallels Title 2 of S. 2123, the Senate SRCA legislation, providing for expanded in-prison programming and early supervised release of prisoners into the community. The House Judiciary Committee approved bipartisan legislation to overhaul federal civil asset forfeiture laws, H.R. 5283, the Deterring Undue Enforcement by Protecting Rights of Citizens from Excessive Searches and Seizures Act of 2016 (DUE PROCESS Act) by voice vote on May 25, 2016. The House is expected to package together the several separately approved Judiciary bills for floor action during a "criminal justice reform week" later this year.