October 01, 2015

Senate Judiciary Committee clears landmark criminal justice legislation

The Senate Judiciary Committee achieved a major breakthrough in the push for criminal justice reform this month when members cleared a bipartisan bill Oct. 22 that resulted from a three-year collaboration by Senate Republicans and Democrats.

The committee approved S. 2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act,  by a 15-5 vote with the strong support of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who called the legislation the “most significant criminal justice reform bill in a generation.” Grassley and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) led the effort to draft the bill and introduced the legislation Oct. 1 with the cosponsorship of committee Ranking Member Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Cory Booker (D-N.J.),  Tim Scott (R-S.C) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The legislation, which is supported by the ABA, includes key provisions to:

     • narrow the scope of mandatory minimum sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals;

     • broaden the existing “safety valve” that allows judges discretion in sentencing lower-level non-violent offenders; and

     • ensure retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine.

The bill also would strengthen recidivism reduction programs by allowing qualified prisoners participating in the programs to earn credits toward early release and the opportunity to spend a portion of their remaining sentence in residential reentry centers, home confinement or under community supervision. In addition, the bill would allow early release of certain non-violent inmates who are older than 60, terminally ill, or in nursing care.  

Another major component of the bill would create a system of parole for juveniles sentenced to life after they have served 20 years of their sentences. The bill also would limit solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody and allow the records of certain non-violent juveniles to be sealed or expunged.

During the markup, the committee rejected attempts to amend the bill, including proposals to weaken the retroactivity provisions.

Grassley said the bill “is a success because we found common ground,”  and Leahy added that a “guiding principle in our effort is a shared commitment to reducing the unsustainable size of our federal prison population and unfairness that exists in our sentencing laws – without sacrificing public safety.”

Committee approval on Oct. 22 followed an Oct. 19 hearing, where witnesses expressing support for the bill included Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates; former Attorney General Michael Mikasey; Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project; Hilary O. Shelton, director, NAACP Washington Bureau; and Craig DeRoche, executive director, Justice Fellowship, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Steven H. Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, expressed concerns that weakening of mandatory minimum penalties would deprive law enforcement of the tools they need to address drug trafficking.

ABA President Paulette Brown, in a statement issued upon introduction of the bill, said the legislation reflects a recognition that some of the harsh penalties adopted by lawmakers over many decades are “overly broad and have resulted in disproportionate sentences, particularly for racial minorities, and have contributed to a system that has become too costly to sustain both in fiscal and human terms.” In an Oct. 19 letter to the committee, she commended Grassley and Durbin for leading remarkable bipartisan negotiations and called the result “a worthy reform consensus on complex and difficult sentencing and corrections issues.”

“While S. 2123 is a compromise that does not go as far as the ABA would prefer in overhauling federal sentencing policy, it takes a number of important steps forward to reduce reliance on mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders and to improve fairness  and the achievement of justice in the federal system,” Brown wrote.

The bipartisan consensus in the Senate influenced House leaders to step up their criminal justice reform efforts and swiftly introduce a narrower bill Oct. 8.  H.R. 3713 – sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and the committee’s ranking member, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) ─ includes provisions that closely follow the Senate bill’s sentencing reforms but does not address corrections issues. More than 20 bipartisan cosponsors include Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime.

Goodlatte and Conyers indicated that they are continuing to work on additional bills that address other aspects of the criminal justice system and expect to roll out more bills over the coming weeks.

The sentencing reform provisions in both bills are in keeping with the Obama administration’s push for sentencing reform through the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative that was unveiled by the attorney general during the 2013 ABA Annual Meeting.

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