Latest US Sentencing Reform Effort Is More Hype Than Guts

While federal lawmakers were busy getting nothing done in Washington, D.C. last week, there was at least some harmony on the hill regarding the issue of sentencing reform.

After several months of negotiations, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois struck a deal within the U.S Senate by introducing “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.” The proposal begs to impose modest changes to the criminal justice system in the United States that would create more flexible guidelines in the area of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

The bill is being hailed by supporters as one of the most substantial criminal justice reforms to be introduced since the inception of the War on Drugs—a signal that some believe to be an indication that a treacherous era is finally coming to an end.

The legislation, however, is not exactly salvation’s wings.

While the basic summary is somewhat attractive, the girth of the proposal does not go the distance with regard to truly changing the situation with mandatory minimums. It only provides minute changes that may not have much of an impact on those people destined to serve unruly sentences for drug-related offenses.

First and foremost, the bill would only reduce mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole down to 25-year prison terms for three-strike drug offenders. For those with two drug-related offenses, the mandatory minimum of 20 years would be reduced to 15 years—hardly enough of a decrease.

However, the proposal would broaden the existing safety valve and create a secondary outlet that would allow judges to use their own discretion when issuing sentences against low-level offenders. This alone could better the chances of leniency for some people busted for non-violent drug crimes. Unfortunately, this element of the bill would not be retroactive.

Grassley, the guiding light behind this legislation, appears to be most excited about what the proposal would do for those people caught in the disparity between the possession of powdered and crack cocaine. The bill would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, which he suggests is a provision that could benefit well over 6,000 prisoners.

Although the proposal is by no means the best draft lawmakers could have put in front of Congress, it is the one that drug policy experts believe has the best chances of landing on President Obama’s desk before the end of the year.

“The legislation is recognition from leadership in both parties that the War on Drugs has failed and that the harsh sentencing laws that appealed to lawmakers in the 80s and 90s have had disastrous consequences—especially for communities of color,” Michael Collins, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “There are things we like about the bill and things we don’t, and much more action is needed to tackle mass incarceration, but this is a worthy compromise.”

The bill will likely go before the Senate Judiciary Committee before the end of the month.

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