US Senate Sentencing Reform Bill: Game Changer or Status Quo?

A sentencing reform bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on Thursday by a bipartisan team of lawmakers is being met with praise, as well as caution, by prisoners’ rights advocates who say it is time to end the War on Drugs once and for all.

“The legislation is recognition from leadership in both parties that the war on drugs has failed and that the harsh sentencing laws that appealed to lawmakers in the 80s and 90s have had disastrous consequences—especially for communities of color,” said Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. “There are things we like about the bill and things we don’t, and much more action is needed to tackle mass incarceration, but this is a worthy compromise.”

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is backed by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

The legislation calls for reductions in some mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for people incarcerated on nonviolent drug offenses who don’t have prior records. The proposed law also extends the federal “safety valve,” described by the Drug Policy Alliance as a mechanism that “allows judges to use their discretion to sentence people below statutory mandatory minimums.” In addition, the act would also extend some reentry and early release programming.

As Karen Dolan of the Institute for Policy Studies pointed out, the bill also limits “the use of solitary confinement for young people incarcerated in federal facilities” and provides the possibility of parole “for some offenses committed while a juvenile.”

However, the act also calls for increased mandatory minimum sentences for certain “export control” and interstate domestic violence offenses. In addition, its focus on drug offenders runs counter to calls for all prisoners’ human rights to be recognized—not just those deemed “good” in the eyes of the prison industrial complex.

What’s more, Dolan explained, the bill could have been far stronger: “[It] could have eliminated unfair mandatory minimums altogether. It could have done more to reduce ‘collateral consequences’ that present almost insurmountable barriers to citizens returning to their communities after incarceration; it could have provided for expungement of records of formerly incarcerated adults after three years of successful reentry.

The ACLU said in a press statement on Thursday that it has “deep concerns” about the expansion of some mandatory minimum sentences. “We believe that punishments must fit the crime and that a cookie-cutter approach too often gets in the way of justice,” the organization wrote.


And Chandra Bozelko wrote in the Guardian, “Despite its name, and the growing consensus that such provisions impede rather than improve justice, the bill allows many mandatory minimum sentences to remain in effect—and even adds mandatory minimums for other crimes.”

But others were more laudatory.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of over 200 national organizations, declared: “Thirty years of ‘tough on crime’ sentencing has created an unjust system that imprisons more people than in any other nation in the world, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, Latino, low-income, and nonviolent. We have learned that we cannot imprison our way to safety.”

“Today marks a unique moment in our history and an important step forward in making long overdue reforms to our justice system,” the coalition continued.

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Sustained pressure from rights campaigners, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, pressured lawmakers to draft the compromise in the first place, noted Time journalist Alex Altman.

Many are hoping that the legislation’s bipartisan support will give it a shot at passing.

“[F]or a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators to come together and do what they were elected to do is a big deal,” wrote Dolan. “And this legislation is a big deal, too.  The prospects in the Senate are uncharacteristically bright for passage given that the House is hardly prone to bipartisanship or compromise.”

“I spent 12 years behind bars because of draconian mandatory minimum sentences and I appreciate the significance of Congress rolling back our country’s drug war,” said Anthony Papa, manager of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance. “This is a first step in bringing our brothers and sisters home and healing our families and our communities.”

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