The Senate Just Took a Huge Step on Criminal Justice Reform

Getty Images

After years of fierce debate on the harshness and discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system, Washington is finally responding.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled details of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley described at a press conference as "the biggest crime justice reform in a generation."

The support of Grassley, the tough-on-crime Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, bodes very well for the possibility of a rare occasion in the nation's capital these days: meaningful bipartisan reform on an issue of tremendous importance.

But for progressive criminal justice reform advocates, the proposal is a mixed bag. While it includes a number of provisions designed to lessen or reverse some of the most punitive aspects of how criminals are incarcerated in the United States, it doesn't eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, one of the key points of focus for critics of America's status as the most voracious incarcerator in the world. (In fact, it even proposes some new mandatory minimum policies.) And while there's plenty for reformers to praise on sentencing front, there is a total absence of measures that would improve systemic problems in policing in cities across the country.

What's in the bill? The proposal, which is the product of months of negotiations, has a number of measures designed to counteract the sentencing excesses that were passed enacted as the U.S. endured a major crime wave in the late 20th century — a swell that ended in the 1990s. Here are the crucial ones:

Source: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Source: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Reduction of some mandatory minimums: The bill takes a blow at controversial mandatory minimum laws for prior drug felons. According to an analysis of the proposal by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the bill would reduce the mandatory minimum sentence for a third drug or violent felony offense from life without parole to a term of 25 years in prison. It would also reduce the mandatory minimum sentence for a second drug or violent felony offense from 20 years to 15 years.

The circumstances that prompt these minimum sentences would also be changed. Under current law, the prior offenses that trigger the minimums could simply be any drug felony, but this bill both narrows the category to "serious" drug felonies and expands them to include "serious violent" felonies. 

These policies would also apply retroactively, meaning they could change the sentences of people already in prison.

Fairness for people who suffered from double-standards on crack: In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the extraordinary 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine mandatory minimum sentences to an 18-to-1 disparity. This bill would allow thousands of offenders sentenced before 2010 to seek lighter sentences under that act.

Makes the safety valve bigger: The bill also broadens the "safety valve" exception to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, which allows a judge to hand down a sentence lower than the mandatory minimum for less serious crimes. It also introduces an additional safety valve exception that would halve the sentence of drug offenders facing 10-year minimums. It's worth noting that defendants convicted of serious violent and serious drug felonies would not benefit from these exceptions.

Rehabilitation: The bill also calls for new measures to aid rehabilitation. Some federal prisoners will have the opportunity to earn time credits that shorten their sentences by participating in rehabilitative programming. 

Reduced solitary confinement for juveniles: The bill calls for reduced solitary confinement for juveniles housed in federal prisons.

Other mandatory minimums: The bill would also reduce some mandatory minimums regarding gun possession modestly, but also creates new (relatively light) ones regarding domestic violence and providing aid to terrorists. 

How good is this bill? The bill falls short of a revolution in changing the criminal justice system. There's nothing about taking measures to change policing, it doesn't eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and it keeps them fairly high for some drug-related offenses. But it's a significant step forward in the wake of legislation passed in the 1990s.

"It's not a full repeal of mandatory minimums, which we want, and it adds new mandatory minimums that we think are unnecessary and should be removed, but it's going to help thousands of families and has the bipartisan support to make it through Congress and to the president's desk," Molly Gill, government affairs counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told Mic. "The retroactivity is particularly unprecedented — it should send a strong message that if Congress is going to fix injustices, it should be fixing them for everyone, no matter when they were sentenced."

For some groups, the bill represents perhaps the best that can be achieved in today's political climate.

"Reforming our justice system is a top national priority, and it's a historic moment for strong bipartisan leadership in the Senate building upon data-driven reforms in states across the country," Christine Leonard, executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, said in an email to Mic.

The bill only changes sentencing for people in federal prisons, which constitute a relatively small percentage of people incarcerated across the country — most are held in state institutions. In the short term, the passage of this bill would not affect them. But many state courts implement federal guidelines and stay aligned with them, so reform at the federal level would likely ultimately drive change at the state level. 

There isn't a great deal of time for Congress to pass the bill this year, but if it — or some version of it — does pass, it won't be a moment too soon.