In a rare and heartening example of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have united around a proposal for a major reform of federal criminal sentencing laws. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 unveiled last week by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a conservative Republican, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a liberal Democrat, would limit the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, increase the discretion of judges in sentencing and make it easier for defendants in drug cases to take advantage of “safety valves” that can spare them mandatory minimums.
Like many compromises, the bill is imperfect. It doesn’t go far enough to reform draconian mandatory minimum sentences, often enacted by Congress in response to panic about perceived “waves” of particular sorts of crimes. In fact, the bill creates new mandatory minimums for some offenses.
Congress has the right to set minimum and maximum penalties for violations of federal law. The problem is that many mandatory minimums result in harsher sentences than would be imposed by federal judges considering all of the factors in a case. Harsh mandatory minimums also undermine the mission of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is charged by Congress with devising guidelines for judges “regarding the appropriate form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes.”
Although the bill doesn’t go far enough, it would offer some important flexibility and discretion to judges working within an unreasonably rigid system. The president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums calls the bill “the most significant pieces of sentencing reform legislation in a generation.”
The bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for several offenses. But its most profound effect would be on the incarceration of drug offenders. It would allow some nonviolent drug offenders to escape mandatory minimums altogether if a judge found that their “score” under sentencing guidelines overrepresented the seriousness of their criminal record or the likelihood that they would commit more crimes.
Finally, the bill would make it easier to earn credits toward earlier release by completing rehabilitation programs. This represents a swing of the pendulum away from Congress’ 1984 decision to abolish parole for federal prisoners. But it makes sense that the length of a prisoner’s time behind bars reflects not only the seriousness of his crime but his efforts to change his ways.
A few years ago it would have seemed impossible that a bill aimed at reducing incarceration would win bipartisan support on the eve of national elections. That this bill stands a good chance of passing is a reflection of an overdue realization that America locks up too many people for too long.