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Sentencing Reform Should Be a Top Post-Election Priority for Congress

It would mark a crucial first step toward reducing federal mass incarceration.

November 7, 2018

As Congress prepares to enter a lame-duck session following yesterday’s midterm elections, it has a rare opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation that will help reform our criminal justice system and end mass incarceration. And sentencing reform must be included in any meaningful effort to reduce the number of people entering the federal prison system.

In recent years, mass incarceration has emerged as among the defining civil rights issues of our time. The United States has less than five percent of the global population but almost 25 percent of its prison population. That translates to a total of 1.46 million prisoners in the country currently serving time. The federal prison population has risen by more than 700 percent since 1980, and federal prison spending has increased by nearly 600 percent. That growth has disproportionally affected Black, Native, and Latino Americans.  

Overly harsh prison sentences helped create the mass incarceration crisis

One major catalyst for mass incarceration was the creation of federal mandatory minimum sentences. These laws, which set fixed minimum sentences for certain crimes, have contributed to a surge in recent decades of unnecessarily harsh prison sentences. In addition, more than two thirds of federal prisoners serving a life sentence or virtual life sentence have been convicted of non-violent crimes. 

Not only are long prison sentences often unnecessarily harsh – they are also largely ineffective. Researchers have found that overly harsh sentences have done little to reduce crime. In fact, in some cases, longer prison stays can actually increase the likelihood of people returning to criminal activity. In addition, these sentences disproportionately impact people of color and low-income communities. 

There’s already an outline in place for Congress to act on sentencing reform

Sentencing reform must be the starting point of any serious legislation for criminal justice reform. Ultimately, this should involve eliminating incarceration for lower-level crimes such as minor marijuana trafficking and immigration crimes. In the more immediate future, however, Congress should consider the sentencing provisions outlined in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SCRA). If enacted, the provisions would significantly lower the mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior non-violent drug convictions. 

The FIRST STEP Act is another criminal justice reform bill making its way through Congress. Advocates and lawmakers are working to amend it to include sentencing reform provisions – a promising development. The bill has earned the support of key Republicans, Democrats, and President Donald Trump. Congress should take advantage of this bipartisan support by passing the FIRST STEP Act with robust sentencing reform added in.

Several states, including Connecticut, South Carolina, and Ohio, have already enacted reforms to reduce mandatory minimum sentences. In these and other states, crime rates have fallen even as prison populations have decreased.

Now is the time to pass legislation on sentencing reform

Criminal justice reform is a rare point of bipartisan consensus in today’s polarized climate. In fact, 71 percent of Americans surveyed – including a majority of Trump voters – agree that it’s important to reduce the country’s prison population. And there’s substantial support from key members of Congress – both Republican and Democrat – for comprehensive reform. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled he would call a vote after the midterm election if more than 60 senators support the bill.

With that momentum, one of Congress’s first agenda items for this year’s “lame-duck” session should be to pass legislation that will help reduce mass incarceration. And any successful effort will start with sentencing reform.