Despite the partisanship that has paralyzed Washington on so many issues, some Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate have come together around the proposition that America imprisons too many people for too long and that the burden of incarceration disproportionately falls on racial minorities. Ominously, however, the enlightened legislation they have produced is opposed by the Trump Justice Department.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act approved by a bipartisan vote in the Judiciary Committee would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, create a new “safety valve” that would allow judges to sentence some low-level drug offenders to less time than required by existing mandatory minimums and reduce a “three-strike” penalty for some repeat offenders from life imprisonment to 25 years. It also would make retroactive a 2010 law that reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, a distinction that disproportionately punished African Americans.
The Senate bill isn’t perfect. It doesn’t go far enough in reforming mandatory minimum sentences, which are often enacted by Congress in response to panic about perceived "waves" of particular sorts of crimes and which tie judges’ hands. In fact, the legislation creates new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and exporting weapons.
Still, the legislation would represent a significant shift away from policies that have devastated poor and minority communities without achieving a commensurate increase in public safety.
In addition to changes in sentencing, the bill would allow some federal prisoners to earn time off their prison sentences for successful participation in “recidivism reduction” programs, including education and job training. This represents a welcome recognition that the length of a prisoner's time behind bars should reflect not only the seriousness of his crime but also his efforts to change his behavior.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill despite a warning from Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that its enactment would be a “grave error” and would reduce sentences for a “highly dangerous cohort of criminals including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms.” Sessions also claimed that it would be wrong to reduce drug sentences “in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history.” (The opioid crisis is not primarily a problem of lax law enforcement.)
Sessions’ view of criminal justice is a throwback to the “tough on crime” policies that created the crisis of over-incarceration the Senate bill aims to address. Unfortunately, his views could carry weight with other members of Congress and with President Trump, who promised in his inaugural address to end what he called “this American carnage.” Supporters of the Senate need to drive home the truth that excessively long sentences and prison terms do not make the country safer.