Criminal justice experts offered some cautious optimism about the sentencing reform plan introduced last week in the Senate, NPR reports. The bill would apply only to federal prisons, which house 200,000 inmates, a tiny fraction of the national population behind bars. The plan seeks to limit solitary confinement for juveniles and offers them a path to expunge their criminal records. Federal prisons hold fewer than 50 juveniles. The number of prisoners the bill would touch is hard to define. It would make retroactive 2010 changes that reduce the disproportionate punishments between people sentenced to prison for crack cocaine offenses and those with shorter terms for crimes involving powder cocaine. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) said that fix alone would apply to 6,500 behind bars. Other provisions would cut mandatory life without parole sentences for people who committed three drug crimes to 25-year terms, and reduce mandatory 20-year terms for two drug crimes to 15-year mandatory terms.
“The bill isn’t the full repeal of mandatory minimum sentences we ultimately need,” said Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “But it is a substantial improvement over the status quo and will fix some of the worst injustices.” Fordham law Prof. John Pfaff said, “Prison populations will not drop significantly until we start asking how we can punish violent offenders more intelligently and less severely. Super-long sentences for violent offenders do not give us any extra deterrent effect and they over-incarcerate in that even violent offenders generally age out of aggressive behavior.” Jon Adler of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, whose group represents 28,000 active and retired federal law officers, doesn’t consider drug dealers “non violent” criminals. “I remain concerned that the bill underestimates the impact of drugs and violence on victims by playing with the definition of what is considered a ‘serious’ offense,” he said. “Because the poison that they deal kills people every day, all drug dealers are committing ‘serious’ crimes whether they are armed, physically violent, or not.”