(Some Of) What You Need To Know: Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act
This What You Need To Know (WYNTK) is only an overview of a very complex piece of legislation aiming to reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. This edition will focus on the Senate’s version of bill, S.2123 that spurred a national conversation last year. It should be noted that there are several House bills purporting to address the same issues while also focusing on additional components of our criminal justice system.
At its annual Town Hall meeting in October of 2015, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs passed a resolution on Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Reform. This policy is one among many in our long history of engagement in criminal justice issues.
More than 30 years ago, the United States adopted “tough on crime” policies and mandatory minimum sentences that initiated the “War on Drugs.” About half of all arrests are drug-related, and the vast majority of these are for personal use or simple possession. As a result, our prison population has skyrocketed. Over the last two decades, the federal prison population increased almost eightfold.
Long sentences and mandatory incarceration for minor drug offenses have not significantly deterred drug use or reduced addiction rates. We also know that arrests and prosecutions for drug offenses fall disproportionately on African-Americans and Latinos, despite similar usage rates among Caucasians. Moreover, JCPA takes an interest in this issue because mass incarceration is a significant contributing factor to poverty, income inequality, and family instability.
In addition to JCPA’s support, there are many others in the Jewish and broader faith community invested in this legislation, which has garnered support from a diverse coalition including civil rights, drug policy, and criminal justice reform advocates. For that reason, this issue is a prime opportunity to engage in both coalition- and intergroup relationship building. The Obama Administration has also made a commitment to reforming our criminal justice system and has been deeply engaged in negotiations regarding this legislation. Many supporters of this bill see it as a significant first step toward restoring a tattered and biased criminal justice system.
Context and Impact
The total U.S. prison population is approximately 2.3 million individuals. Only 210,567, or 9%, are held at federal prisons. Of this population, approximately 4,287 individuals could benefit annually from these changes, and about 6,868 individuals currently incarcerated would be eligible for early release, if granted, that would occur over several years. Every mandatory minimum eligible for reduction in this bill only does so by a total of five to 10 years.
Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act S.2123
On October 1, 2015, a bipartisan group of Senators including Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced S.2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA, pronounced “circa”). SRCA is an important criminal justice reform package aimed at reducing some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and curbing recidivism. This bill is viewed as the most significant federal legislative initiative on criminal justice reform since the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
SRCA touches on many elements of the criminal justice system, from reforming sentencing guidelines for drug and violent offenders, to providing federal prisons with recidivism reduction programming, to issuing limitations on the use of juvenile solitary confinement. Highlights include:
- Reduces and targets enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for prior drug felons
- Broadens the existing safety valve to include individuals with up to four criminal history points
- Clarifies and reduces the enhanced mandatory minimum sentence for certain firearm offenses
- Raises the statutory maximum for unlawful possession of a firearm and creates an overlapping range by reducing the enhanced mandatory minimum for armed career criminals
- Creates a new mandatory minimum for interstate domestic violence and certain export control offenses
- Retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act
- Adds recidivism reduction programming
- Provides for juvenile sealing and record expungement
- Limits use of juvenile solitary confinement
Note: This proposal only changes the sentencing guidelines allowing for shorter mandatory minimum sentences or early release. Judges still maintain authority to determine the appropriate sentences for offenders.
The bill has strong bipartisan support with 15 Democratic and 13 Republican cosponsors, and it has passed favorably out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, there was opposition from five dissenting members of the committee: Orin Hatch (R-UT), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), David Vitter (R-LA), and David Perdue (R-GA). These five are not the only members of the Senate standing opposed to SRCA. In a floor speech, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), raised a concern about public safety. He, among others, questions the definition of the term “non-violent,” and argues that the bill will sanction the release of violent individuals. Specifically, those “non-violent” offenders may include juveniles convicted of felonies who are tried as adults, felons, and armed career criminals who have used firearms in the course of their drug felonies or crimes of violence.
SRCA was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee six months ago, shortly after it was introduced. Given the amount of enthusiasm from a diverse group of supporters and the Obama Administration, this bill has drawn a lot of attention. The next step for SRCA is a vote on the full Senate floor.
- Congressional Research Services Report on the federal prison population build up
- The U.S. Sentencing Commission Report to Congress on Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System discusses the impact of mandatory minimum penalties on federal sentencing.
- Transcript of Senator Tom Cotton’s Floor Speech opposing SRCA.
- Congressional Resource Services Report on SCRC.
There is much more to sentencing reform than just numbers. Read the story of Weldon Angelos, who at 24 was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for three marijuana sales and possession of a gun.