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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)