DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA – The bipartisan authors of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recently announced revisions to the legislation to broaden bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. The bill is led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin, Assistant Majority Leader John Cornyn, Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy and Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
The revised bill is now cosponsored by a bipartisan group of 37 senators and supported by a broad and diverse array of organizations and interests. The National District Attorneys Association, the largest association of prosecutors in the country, recently submitted a letter of support for the legislation. The organization’s president, William Fitzpatrick, wrote:
As a result of months of changes and good faith negotiations, our organization feels the latest version of the bill strikes the appropriate balance between targeting the highest level drug traffickers plaguing our communities, while simultaneously decreasing crime rates and addressing the burgeoning prison population.
The bill also enjoys support from coalitions representing more than 400 groups and organizations across the political spectrum.
The revised legislation leaves intact important tools to help prosecutors take down large criminal operations and still reduces minimum penalties for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
The bill also still expands the existing safety-valve provision and creates a second safety-valve so that judges are able to exercise greater discretion in sentencing for low-level, nonviolent drug traffickers. And the bill maintains two new mandatory minimums for offenses involving interstate domestic violence and providing weapons to prohibited countries or designated terrorists.
Importantly, the revised bill also leaves in place important prison reforms that encourage qualifying inmates to earn reduced sentences through recidivism-reduction programs.
After seeking input from Senate colleagues, the authors fine-tuned some provisions to ensure violent criminals do not benefit from reduced sentence opportunities established by the bill. It now expressly excludes offenders convicted of any serious violent felony from retroactive early release. It also substantially limits the changes to the firearm provisions, striking all changes to the Armed Career Criminal Act.
The revised bill also establishes a mandatory sentencing enhancement for offenses involving fentanyl, a dangerous opioid responsible for thousands of drug overdoses and deaths.
The revised bill also provides greater opportunity for relief for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Prior misdemeanors and other minor drug offenses are excluded from an offender’s criminal history calculation for purposes of the safety valve.
The bill makes clear that minor, nonviolent participants in large drug conspiracies can be eligible for relief under the “second safety valve.” And a defendant who cooperates with law enforcement may not be subject to an enhanced sentence unless the defendant was involved in any acts of violence. Finally, outdated nonviolent narcotics convictions cannot serve as predicate offenses for the enhanced mandatory minimum for repeat offenders.
The bill’s authors released the following statements:
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said:
To be effective, a criminal justice system must be seen as legitimate. And for too long our federal sentencing laws have required punishments that just don’t fit the crime. More and more of our fellow senators are recognizing this mismatch between crimes and penalties and this bill takes a big step in fixing the problem. I am grateful for the feedback we have received from our colleagues on this bill, and I believe it is a better product today thanks to the efforts of those joining us as cosponsors today.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said:
After nearly a year of bipartisan collaboration, we developed a comprehensive plan that goes a long way to address over-incarceration, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars, all while preserving tools to keep violent and career criminals out of our communities. We’ve taken that same proven strategy of good-faith negotiations to our Senate colleagues to fine tune and improve this proposal. In doing so, the bill has gained even broader bipartisan support. I’m grateful for the work of the other authors and all of my colleagues for their willingness to come together on a historic bill worth of consideration by the full Senate.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said:
This legislation represents more than three years of work on criminal justice reform, and months of bipartisan negotiations with my colleagues. We believe this bill can pass the Senate with a majority of Democrats and majority of Republicans supporting it. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This is the best chance in a generation to reform our federal drug sentencing laws. We cannot squander it.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said:
By preserving and expanding important mandatory minimums for violent offenders while preparing low-level inmates to reenter society and break the cycle of recidivism, this legislation builds on reforms in states like Texas that have successfully rehabilitated prisoners, reduced crime rates, and saved taxpayer dollars. I look forward to working with my colleagues as we continue to build support for this commonsense measure on both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said:
It has taken a long time, but I am glad that a bipartisan group of Senators has joined our efforts to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system. Now, the Senate must vote. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has the support of a majority of Senators, and it is an important first step in correcting the costly mistakes we made when we enacted reactionary mandatory minimums sentences. Real people, like Weldon Angelos, are paying with decades of their lives. We must keep pushing and see that this bill is enacted and continue working toward additional reforms.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said:
This new bill modifies sensible sentencing reforms and maintains sensible approaches to reducing recidivism that have worked well in states like Rhode Island. As amended, it will still help reduce swelling prison populations and burdensome incarceration costs, and help inmates become productive members of our communities upon release. Since these changes to the bill have allowed us to attract even more bipartisan support, I urge Leader McConnell to take it up.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said:
We maintain the tools law enforcement needs to continue making sure that the worst drug traffickers and violent criminals stay off of our streets. We also provide flexibility in sentencing for those offenders who deserve it. I’m proud this legislation, which was the product of months of negotiation, is picking up additional support from law enforcement as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said:
Months of hard work and bipartisan collaboration have yielded an even broader base of support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and I believe it will pass the Senate if Senator McConnell brings it for a vote. This legislation would expand the number of people with nonviolent convictions who would benefit from a sentencing reduction while ensuring public safety. Mass incarceration is costing taxpayers billions and billions of dollars every year, draining our economy of potential, compromising public safety, hurting our children, and disproportionately affecting communities of color. Passing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would take a long-overdue step forward and help make our federal justice system more just. The time to act is now.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said:
There is bipartisan agreement that we need to make serious reforms to our criminal justice system, and we need to make them soon. We urge our Republican colleagues who haven’t yet signed on to this cause to give careful thought to the issue and join with us in moving this bill forward.