Despite Justice Department opposition, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation Feb 15 by a 16-5 vote.
The Senate bill, S. 1917, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and 22 cosponsors, is the latest effort by Congress to pass meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system and is similar to legislation approved by the committee during the last Congress that never reached the Senate floor for a vote.
Known as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (SRCA), the bill contains many ABA-supported provisions, including:
● narrowing the scope of mandatory minimum sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals;
● broadening the existing “safety valve” that allows judges to use discretion in sentencing lower level nonviolent offenders;
● ending federal juvenile life sentences without parole, banning juvenile solitary confinement, and permitting juveniles to obtain expungement of certain criminal records; and
● establishing a National Criminal Justice Commission to comprehensively review the criminal justice system and make recommendations for criminal justice reform.
ABA President Hilarie Bass expressed the association’s support for the bill in a Jan. 9 letter to the committee, which the association resubmitted on Feb. 9 ahead of the committee vote. In the Jan. 9 letter, Bass emphasized that while the bill does not go as far in reforming mandatory minimum sentencing as the ABA would like, it makes important steps towards improving fairness and justice in the federal criminal justice system.
Enactment of the legislation “will help focus prosecutorial and correctional resources on offenders who commit serious crimes that pose the greatest risk to public safety and will permit more sentencing flexibility for low-level, nonviolent offenders whose role and culpability will now receive more careful and balanced consideration by sentencing judges,” Bass explained.
She further explained that mandatory minimums contribute to the country’s high incarceration rates and exacerbate the level of racial disparity in the correctional system, noting that African Americans and Latinos make up three quarters of the federal prison population.
“This bill offers substantive revisions to the federal sentencing system that will help reduce our reliance on lengthy prison terms for low-level offenses, lessen the disparate impact of federal sentencing policies on African Americans and Latinos, and change direction away from policies that are unsustainable,” Bass noted.
Even though the legislation has bipartisan support in the Senate, S. 1917 faces an uphill battle going forward. A letter sent to Grassley on Feb. 14 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed the administration’s strong opposition to the comprehensive bill, writing that passing the bill would be a “grave error.”
During markup, the committee rejected, by a 5-16 vote, an amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to include language that he said would ensure that violent criminals would not be eligible for retroactive lowering of their sentences. Although no other amendments were offered, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he could not support the bill because it did not include mens rea (criminal intent) provisions, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) spoke in favor of a narrower approach included in S.1994, a bill he introduced that focuses on correction and prison reform.
Grassley emphasized, despite the obstacles, the importance of the legislation.
“The reforms in this bill are not only supported by a broad, bipartisan swath of the U.S. Senate, they are also popular among Americans of all stripes and political views. This is a rare opportunity to enact meaningful reforms on a bipartisan basis, reforms that have proven elusive for previous administrations,” Grassley said.