Prison Reform
It’s Finally Here: Senators Introduce Prison Reform Bill

After months of protests, presidential speeches, and impassioned public debate, prison reform got one step closer today to becoming the first major bipartisan legislative achievement of President Obama’s time in office. The New York Times reports on legislation introduced today that the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to consider later this month:

A bipartisan group of influential senators on Thursday proposed a far-reaching plan to cut mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and promote more early release from federal prisons in what they described as the most important criminal justice reform effort in a generation. […]

The legislation proposes an extensive set of changes in federal sentencing requirements. Those changes include a reduction in mandatory minimum sentencing to five years from 10 for qualified cases; a reduction in automatic additional penalties for those with prior drug felonies; and more discretion for judges in assessing criminal history.

Many of the new rules could be applied retroactively, and an estimated 6,500 people now in prison would be able to petition for new sentences should the legislation become law. […]

Lawmakers hoping for more sweeping changes did not win the across-the-board reductions in mandatory minimum sentences they had sought when the negotiations began. They compromised to win the backing of Mr. Grassley, who in the past has been critical of broad efforts to reduce prison time.

As currently written, the legislation is sure to disappoint ardent criminal justice reformers on both the left and the right who were hoping for something more sweeping. But it is remarkable that this bipartisan group of Senate heavyweights was able to agree on any legislation at all, let alone legislation this substantive, in the midst of a polarized election season and in the wake of a summer crime wave that had some observers pronouncing prison reform dead in the water.

We have long been in favor of cautious and intelligent efforts to scale back lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. Such sentences drain government coffers and are tremendously socially disruptive, and many people currently behind bars deserve second chances. So this legislation looks promising, and we hope that it gets careful consideration in both houses and can retain the bipartisan support that has brought the cause so far in such a short period of time.

But don’t expect this bill, or any federal sentencing reform bill, to have a substantial impact on the social phenomenon of mass incarceration. Ninety percent of the more than two million prisoners in the United States are in state prisons, and any real effort to meaningfully reduce America’s total prison population would require aggressive state-level reforms to prosecutorial procedure and sentencing laws (and not just sentencing laws for drug offenders). Many states are already experimenting with these reforms, but the changes may not be cost-free.

America’s prison problem is a thorny one, and it won’t be undone by any single piece of legislation. But the legislation introduced in the Senate seems like a good—if mostly symbolic—first step.

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