Judiciary Committee Gets Smart on Criminal Justice

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee again demonstrated its commitment to improving our criminal justice system.

March 7, 2014

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee again demonstrated its commitment to improving our criminal justice system. Senators Whitehouse (D-RI) and Cornyn (R-TX) offered legislation, in the form of an amendment improving the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, which would help reduce our prison population and help ex-offenders reintegrate into society after being released. This is the second bill this year to come out of the Senate Judiciary Committee aiming to improve the federal prison system.

Our country spends more than $68 billion annually on federal, state and local corrections, largely as a result of our enormous prison population.  The federal prison population alone grew from around 24,000 inmates in 1980 to more than 216,000 by 2012. The Bureau of Prisons budget doubled in the past decade. President Obama’s recent budget for fiscal year 2015 seeks $8.4 billion dollars for corrections, which amounts to nearly 25% of the overall Department of Justice budget. As Charles Samuels, Director of the Bureau of Prisons said in November, our federal prison system is “unsustainable.”

The Judiciary Committee is responding.  In late January, the Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act). This bipartisan bill would significantly change the sentencing structure of the criminal justice system to help reduce our prison population while ensuring our communities remain safe.  It reduces outdated and excessive mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes.  It also expands the application of a 2010 law reducing disparities between sentences for crack versus powder cocaine crimes to apply to more inmates sentenced prior to the law’s passage.    

While the Smarter Sentencing Act focuses on “front end” policies that affect all offenders entering the criminal justice system, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, focuses on “back end” policies that reduce the likelihood inmates released from prison will reenter the system. The bill expands drug treatment through the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP).  Statistics show participants in the RDAP are significantly less likely to return to prison or to relapse into drug use. Over 40 percent of federal inmates suffer from a substance abuse problem.  Investing money in programs like RDAP, will help rehabilitate offenders and ultimately save the taxpayer valuable funds that could go towards other priorities. 

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act is a step in the right direction. But it should not be thought of as a substitute to the Smarter Sentencing Act.  Comprehensive criminal justice reform requires that both front-end and back-end reform legislation is passed.

It is imperative that the full Senate continue moving criminal justice reform forward by passing both the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act.  Otherwise, we are left with a system that drains public resources on an unsustainable mass incarceration system, instead of using federal dollars to promote just, cost-effective, and successful programs.