Sentencing Bill: Another Step Toward Federal Prison Reform


Last Thursday, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the Judiciary Committee chairman, described as “the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation.”

The legislation is aimed at focusing costly correctional resources on serious offenders and scaling back the federal prison system's explosive growth over the past three decades.

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The support of Chairman Grassley, along with the other Senate co-sponsors, is a strong sign that meaningful reform of the federal criminal justice system may well reach President Barack Obama's desk during this Congress.

Among other things, the bill would reduce certain mandatory minimum sentences, expand judicial discretion in sentencing, and allow many current inmates to shorten their time behind bars by participating in educational, vocational or other programs that are shown to reduce recidivism.

These reforms would make important improvements in the federal criminal justice system, but they are not novel. Indeed, they follow the path taken by many state governments, which house the vast majority of the nation's 1.5 million prison inmates. (The federal system holds about 200,000 of these prisoners.)

Beginning with Texas in 2007, more than two dozen states have enacted comprehensive sentencing and corrections reforms that prioritize space for serious and repeat offenders, control corrections costs, and invest some of the savings in alternatives to incarceration that are effective at reducing reoffending.

These changes have attracted overwhelming bipartisan support: A Pew Charitable Trusts analysis of all votes cast by lawmakers in these states shows that their justice reform proposals have garnered the support of more than 5,800 legislators, compared with fewer than 500 “no” votes.

Alabama, Nebraska, and Utah adopted wide-ranging reform packages this year. Utah's new policies are especially noteworthy: The state reduced sentencing guidelines for a broad range of offenses, converted all simple drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, established a system of robust earned time credits for inmates, and decriminalized more than 200 misdemeanors, meaning that violators can no longer be taken to jail. Utah's legislation is projected to avert nearly all of the state's anticipated prison growth over the next 20 years, avoiding $500 million in prison costs and redirecting a portion of the savings toward stronger, more cost-effective incarceration alternatives.

South Carolina also adopted comprehensive sentencing and corrections reform through enactment of legislation in 2010. Five years after the bill became law, South Carolina's prison population is down 9.5 percent, driven by a 30 percent decline in nonviolent inmates, according to a state update published in June. The state has closed two prisons and parts of a third, while violent and property crime rates have decreased 16 and 7 percent, respectively, according to the report.

These changes have drawn notice on Capitol Hill: On Thursday, U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), a co-sponsor of the Senate's new legislation, said the federal bill “reflects the positive results that I've seen in South Carolina.”

While the federal government plays a different role in the nation's criminal justice system, it seems clear that it can learn important lessons from state reforms. Between 1980 and 2013, the population of the federal Bureau of Prisons grew nearly 800 percent—from fewer than 25,000 inmates to more than 215,000. During the same period, the number of federal correctional facilities increased from 43 to 119, while inflation-adjusted federal spending on prisons surged from $970 million to $6.7 billion—roughly the same amount as the U.S. Justice Department's entire budget in 1980.

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Policy choices—including the establishment of strict sentencing guidelines, the elimination of parole, and the creation of mandatory minimum sentences—played a critical role in this growth, particularly when it comes to the drug offenders who now make up roughly half of the federal prison population. As Pew reported in August, the average prison sentence for federal drug offenders increased 36 percent between 1980 and 2011, while the average amount of time that released drug offenders served behind bars went up 153 percent—from roughly two to five years—between 1988 and 2012.

In June, Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced their own sweeping reform legislation, the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, in the House of Representatives. The wide-ranging proposal contains innovative sentencing provisions and additional measures to improve public safety by strengthening the federal probation system. The bill now has 50 co-sponsors, split evenly among Democrats and Republicans.

As leaders in both chambers gear up for much-needed changes to the federal prison system, they can build on success in the states, which have shown that it is possible to reduce imprisonment and crime at the same time—with broad bipartisan support.

The time to take advantage of this rare opportunity for more effective criminal justice policy is now.

Editors Note: Graphics courtesy of Pew Public Safety Performance Project

Adam Gelb and Jake Horowitz are director and policy director, respectively, of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project. They welcome readers' comments.

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