New Compromise on Federal Criminal Justice Reform Should Be Priority for Congress

November 12, 2018

The bipartisan bill would reduce mass incarceration through key sentencing reforms

New York, N.Y. – It was announced tonight that lawmakers reached a compromise on major criminal justice reform legislation that includes both prison reform and sentencing reductions, indicating that the bill is a main priority before the end of the year. The measure has the support of pivotal Republicans and Democrats in Congress, President Donald Trump’s senior White House advisors, advocacy groups including the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and law enforcement groups. 

Under the compromise, a White House-backed bill on prison reform — called the FIRST STEP Act — was amended to include provisions similar to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that shorten some unnecessarily long sentences. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, brokered the compromise with Republican and Democratic colleagues. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that the chamber would likely vote on the legislation if it met a threshold for support.  

“Today’s news is a sign that even in a bitterly-divided political climate, lawmakers agree on the need to confront and solve our mass incarceration crisis,” said Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “This compromise bill would address some of the most egregious and discriminatory parts of justice system. It comes as crime continues to decline nationwide, though near record-numbers of Americans remain incarcerated. The legislation is just a start towards a smarter and fairer approach. But it’s an important one, and it’s long past time to make these changes a reality.” 

The Brennan Center has been working with allies on both sides of the aisle to push for this new bill, calling on Congress to either pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act on its own or include some of its changes in a new version of the FIRST STEP Act. Today’s compromise language does not include everything the Brennan Center pushed for. Several provisions are weaker than in the original 2015 sentencing reform bill. But the compromise includes many key changes, including: lowering mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, allowing judges more discretion to deviate from some mandatory minimum sentences, eliminating the “three strikes” law along with some of the worst sentencing enhancements, and permitting retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

For more information or to connect with a Brennan Center expert, contact Rebecca Autrey at rebecca.autrey@nyu.eduor 646-292-8316.