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Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Bill Introduced in Senate

Following several years of effort and months of negotiation to earn the support of Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act this morning.

The legislation was unveiled by Chairman Grassley, Judiciary ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Tim Scott (R-SC), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Speaking at a press conference unveiling the legislative package, which included proposals put forth by bipartisan groups of senators on various topics, the members stressed the compromise necessary to come to an accord on legislation they could all support.

“This historic reform bill addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade. It’s the product of thoughtful bipartisan deliberation, and I thank my colleagues for their hard work to promote opportunities to reduce recidivism while protecting our communities from violent career criminals. This bill is an important component in my ongoing effort as Judiciary Committee chairman to ensure access to justice for both the victims and the accused,” Chairman Grassley said.

The legislation reduces enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision, but allows for enhanced penalties to be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies.

It broadens the existing safety valve to offenders with more extensive criminal histories, excluding defendants with prior felonies and violent or drug trafficking offenses unless a court finds the prior offenses substantially overstate the defendant’s criminal history and danger of recidivism. It also creates a second safety valve that gives judges discretion to sentence certain low level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum. Offenders convicted of certain violent and drug felonies cannot benefit from the safety valve reforms.

The bill expands the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for violent firearm offenders to those with prior federal or state firearm offences, but reduces the mandatory minimum to provide courts greater sentencing flexibility. The legislation also raises the statutory maximum for unlawful possession of firearms but lowers the enhanced mandatory minimum for repeat offenders. New mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and export control violations are also added.

The legislation applied the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and certain sentencing reforms retroactively, for example providing parity for crack and powder cocaine offenders.

Prison reform based on the Cornyn-Whitehouse CORRECTIONS Act (S. 467) is also included in the bill. It would require the Justice Department to conduct risk assessments to classify all federal inmates and use the results to assign inmates to appropriate recidivism reduction programs. Eligible prisoners who complete such programs can earn early release and may spend the final portion, up to 25 percent, of their sentencing in home confinement or a halfway house.

The bill also limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody and improves the accuracy of federal criminal records. It also provides for a report and inventory of all federal criminal offenses.

A section by section of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act can be accessed here, and a summary of the bill accessed here.

While President Obama and groups covering a wide political spectrum from left to right who have come together around the issue of criminal justice reform praised the introduction of the legislation, law enforcement groups took issue with elements of the reform bill.

While acknowledging the bipartisan compromise necessary to unveil legislation of this nature, Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) said the Senate bill is “a far more reasonable option than the fatally flawed” SAFE Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015 (H.R. 2944) introduced in the House by Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA). FLEOA denounced the Sensenbrenner-Scott bill when it was introduced in September.

Adler said his group remains “concerned that the [Senate] bill underestimates the impact of drugs and violence on victims by playing with the definition of what is considered a "serious” offense.”

FLEOA also expressed concern about decreasing mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers, arguing it provides an incentive for drug dealers to “continue their peddling of death, given the potential earnings. Minimum wage jobs will not successfully lure away released drug dealers from their trade if they know they are facing lower mandatory minimum sentences,” Adler stated.

Adler expressed support for provisions of the bill to ensure violent offenders remain incarcerated for an appropriate period of time, and for prisoners with non-violent pasts to be able to earn reduced sentences through good behavior.

The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA), while also acknowledging the bipartisan effort that went into the bill and pledging to work with lawmakers to strengthen it, took a stronger stance against the legislation, calling it “dangerous.”

NAAUSA President Steven Cook said the bill, if passed, “will add further fuel to a raging fire of increasing crime rates that correspond to so-called sentencing and criminal justice reform efforts at the state and federal level. These reforms are reversing 20 years of crime reductions and will endanger the American public.”

Cook continued that the bill would “weaken the ability of prosecutors to bring drug dealers to justice and prematurely release thousands of previously convicted drug traffickers and violent felons,” and warned about pursuing such reforms at the same time when 16,000 felons are set to be released from prison over the next year, starting with approximately 8,000 convicted drug traffickers this November. “The responsible course is to test these initiatives and assure they don’t risk public safety before Congress takes further action that is likely to add more crime to our streets, not less,” Cook stated.

Cook said the legislation “should be of concern to all Americans: it takes root in the idea that our justice system is in ‘crisis.’ That is not so. To the contrary, our sentencing system has helped bring crime rates down 50% in a single generation.” 

 

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