Skip Navigation

What’s Happening in Congress on Criminal Justice Reform?

The difference between two popular types of bills.

  • Cary Holley
October 5, 2018

The United States houses 5 percent of the global popu­la­tion but holds 25 percent of the world’s pris­on­ers. Incar­cer­ated people face an array of dehu­man­iz­ing condi­tions, includ­ing abuse by guards, confis­ca­tion of essen­tial medi­cine, and lack of access to health­care products and at times even to water. The number of people in prison — and the grim condi­tions they suffer — are some of the most press­ing prob­lems in crim­inal justice today.  

These two distinct prob­lems call for two differ­ent solu­tions. Advoc­ates now use the term “prison reform” to talk about bills that improve condi­tions in prison and the term “senten­cing reform” to talk about bills that reduce the number of people in prison. 

Bills that fall into each category are currently making their way through Congress. Here’s what you need to know about prison reform and senten­cing reform, and how they each contrib­ute to the over­all mission of reform­ing our crim­inal justice system:

Prison Reform

Prison reform aims to improve the condi­tions of confine­ment for pris­on­ers. Some­times referred to as “back-end” reform, prison reform policies make impris­on­ment more humane, rather than reduce the number of people enter­ing prison in the first place and the time they spend there. Consid­er­ing the lack of access to proper health­care (espe­cially for women)harrow­ing living condi­tions, and common­place abuse of inmates in prison, change is clearly neces­sary. 

Congress is currently consid­er­ing a bill that would mitig­ate some of these prob­lems. The FIRST STEP Act prohib­its the use of restraints on preg­nant women, ensures free access to femin­ine hygiene products, requires that pris­on­ers are placed no more than 500 driv­ing miles away from their primary resid­ence, and more. The act also aims to reduce recidiv­ism — or someone’s like­li­hood of commit­ting another crime after release — by letting pris­on­ers end their sentences in home confine­ment or halfway houses, help­ing ease the trans­ition. Addi­tion­ally, the bill would allow pris­on­ers to accrue up to 54 days a year of “good time” cred­its — that is, time off the end of their sentence — compared to the current 47-day limit.

Senten­cing Reform

Senten­cing reform prior­it­izes chan­ging the laws and guidelines that made prison sentences so long in the first place. Mandat­ory minimum laws set fixed minimum sentences for certain crimes, leav­ing judges with no choice but to impose a harsh penalty they may not believe in. On the other hand, senten­cing guidelines help judges use what little discre­tion they have left. These guidelines are not compuls­ory, but judges tend to closely adhere to them

These laws and guidelines helped create mass incar­cer­a­tion, and more and more prosec­utorsjudges and lawmakers are recog­niz­ing that they need to be fixed to end it. 

Senat­ors Charles Grass­ley (R-Iowa) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) have one plan to achieve that goal. In 2015 and again in 2017, they intro­duced a bipar­tisan and popu­lar bill called the Senten­cing Reform and Correc­tions Act (SRCA). This bill signi­fic­antly reduces mandat­ory minimum sentences for several drug-related crimes and ensures that people who went to prison before 2010 can still bene­fit from the Fair Senten­cing Act of 2010, which dramat­ic­ally revised some drug sentences in an effort to reduce the racial dispar­it­ies caused by crack cocaine senten­cing laws. 

SRCA would make a real dent in the prison popu­la­tion: Around 2,500 people enter­ing prison each year would receive a sentence reduc­tion of between 22 and 50 percent, and more than 6,000 currently incar­cer­ated drug offend­ers would be imme­di­ately eligible for a sentence reduc­tion of nearly 30 percent. It also includes prison reform provi­sions such as increas­ing recidiv­ism reduc­tion program­ming and activ­it­ies, and signi­fic­antly limit­ing the use of juven­ile solit­ary confine­ment. 

The Need for Both Types of Reform

Both prison reform and senten­cing reform are crit­ical to improv­ing the crim­inal justice system. However, prison reform on its own, while improv­ing condi­tions of confine­ment, does not mean­ing­fully reduce our coun­try’s unjus­ti­fi­ably large incar­cer­ated popu­la­tion. Senten­cing reform, on the other hand, confronts the found­a­tion of mass incar­cer­a­tion by chan­ging the laws upon which excess­ive sentences are based. 

To holist­ic­ally address our coun­try’s incar­cer­a­tion prob­lem, we need to put an end to unne­ces­sary incar­cer­a­tion through enact­ing senten­cing reform and ensure that the remain­ing prison popu­la­tion is treated with dignity through prison reform. 

(Image: Romolo Tafani/Getty)