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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. 

(Image: Shut­ter­