This Senate Bill Could Forever Change America's Prisons

October 5th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

The effort to reform America's criminal justice system took a step forward last week with the unveiling of bipartisan legislation targeting mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, high recidivism rates, and juvenile solitary confinement, among other things.

The legislation is the latest effort to slim down a bloated system that accounts for about 25 percent of the world's prison population, costs U.S. taxpayers billions each year, and is widely considered to rely on outdated sentencing practices. An earlier reform bill, which is stricter on curtailing things like mandatory minimums is stalled in a House committee.

Notably, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). As the Atlantic notes, Grassley helped write the very sentencing legislation that he and other senators—including John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), among others—are now trying to undo.

"This historic reform bill addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade," Grassley said in a press release. "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[.]"

Criminal justice advocates say the bill addresses many issues plaguing the system, but not all. Nonetheless, the legislation is being welcomed as an important first step to reform, and its broad support could pave the way to implementation. Here are the most important issues tackled by the bill.

1. Reforms to mandatory minimums for prior drug felons

Mandatory minimum sentences have been one factor in surging prison population numbers over the years. Since they were introduced for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 to over 205,000, according to the Bureau of Prisons. The legislation would reduce enhanced penalties for repeat drug offenders and eliminate the three-strike mandatory life provision, while making room for those provisions to be applied people with prior convictions for serious drug or violent felonies. Since changes could be applied retroactively in some cases, an estimated 6,500 inmates sentenced before 2010 could be eligible for release or shortened sentences, the Atlantic notes.

2. Expanded mandatory minimums for firearm offenses, new minimums for other crimes

Many criminal justice reform advocates warn against doling out punitive measures en masse instead of treating each case on its own merits. Still, the bill would seek to expand the reach of mandatory minimums for violent firearm offenders to "those with prior federal or state firearm offenses," while changing the sentence parameters in order to give courts more sentencing flexibility.

Crimes that would be newly subject to mandatory minimums would include interstate domestic violence, and exporting weapons or defense materials to banned countries, or terrorist groups.

3. Limits solitary confinement for juveniles and focuses on reintegration programs

Juvenile solitary confinement has loomed large recently—a visceral glimpse of just how poorly the criminal justice system can serve its younger inmates. The bill would limit the use of solitary for juveniles in federal prisons, as well as improve the accuracy of federal criminal recordkeeping.

Panning towards more effective rehabilitative justice, the bill would also increase the focus on pairing prisoners with programs that could help them better emerge back into society by mandating inmate risk assessments and using those results to put inmates in programs focusing on education, work and skill training, drug rehab, and faith-based programs. For eligible prisoners who successfully complete those programs, the bill would allow them to spend as much as a remaining quarter of their sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.