October 31, 2017

Bipartisan group of senators revive criminal justice reform effort

A renewed push for criminal justice reform was launched this month with the introduction on Oct. 4 of S. 1917, a bipartisan proposal seeking changes to sentencing and corrections practices that would lead to a fairer sentencing system and reduce recidivism.

The legislation, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and 10 cosponsors, is similar to a bill supported by the ABA that stalled during the 114th Congress.

“Our justice system demands consequences for those who choose to run afoul of the law, and law enforcement works hard to keep our communities safe,” Grassley said. “This bipartisan compromise ensures that these consequences fit their crimes by targeting violent and career criminals who prey on the innocent while giving nonviolent offenders with minimal criminal histories a better chance to become productive members of society.”

Major provisions in the bill include:

●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 discretion in sentencing lower-level non-violent offenders; and

●ensuring 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.

The ABA, commenting on similar legislation last year, maintained that such legislation takes several 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. The association also supports provisions to enhance recidivism-reducing prison programs; expand “compassionate release” for elderly, terminally ill prisoners; ban solitary confinement for juveniles; and permit juveniles to obtain expungement of certain criminal records.

S. 1917 also would establish a National Criminal Justice Commission, an idea long-supported by the ABA. The 14 members of the bipartisan commission − nationally recognized experts in various fields − would undertake a comprehensive 18-month review of all areas of the criminal justice system and develop recommendations for ensuing justice at every step of the system. A bipartisan stand-alone bill to create a commission, S. 573, was introduced in March by Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). There has been no action on the bill, which has 16 Democratic and 12 Republican cosponsors.

The association has urged enactment of a National Criminal Justice Commission since bills were first introduced during the 111th Congress.  Expressing support in previous Congresses, the ABA pointed out that it has been 50 years since the last comprehensive study of the nation’s criminal justice system was conducted and emphasized that it is well past time for another re-examination of criminal justice priorities.

Creation of a commission, according to the association, will help determine which measures hold the promise of reducing the number of future victims, help those who break the law to avoid the downward cycle of recidivism and become contributing members of their communities, and identify and promote cost-savings reforms that  have increased public safety in some communities so that the reforms are more widely implemented at all levels of government.