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An inmate looks out from his cell in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, California on October 1, 2013.   © 2013 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – A major criminal justice reform bill introduced in the US Congress on June 25, 2015, could improve the fairness of federal prison sentencing and better protect the rights of prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill, the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, is sponsored by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Bobby Scott of Virginia.

“Federal prisons are filled beyond capacity with people serving grotesquely long sentences,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The SAFE Justice Act proposes thoughtful reforms that address some of the abuses of the ‘tough on crime’ era.”

The SAFE Justice Act proposes reforms throughout all stages of the criminal justice process, from pretrial detention to post-confinement probation. It embraces general criminal justice principles supported by Human Rights Watch, including, for example, eligibility for retroactive application of sentence reductions. Several sections of the bill specifically propose reforms that were analyzed in several recent Human Rights Watch reports:

  • The SAFE Justice Act would reform federal sentencing statutes to promote fairer results. It would modify mandatory minimum sentences so that they exclude people whose role in a drug trafficking offense is low-level or minimal. The bill also would give judges more discretion through “safety valves” to impose sentences on drug offenders shorter than those required by mandatory minimums. And it would narrow sentencing enhancements that currently can turn a 10-year sentence into a life sentence due to prior drug crimes. With these reforms, prosecutors would no longer be able to threaten disproportionately long and unfair sentences in federal drug cases, as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2013 report.
  • The bill would also make much needed changes to the federal compassionate release program. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2012, the US Bureau of Prisons has underused the compassionate release program, which allows for people in prison to be released for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons. The SAFE Justice Act would give people in prison the right to petition a court directly for compassionate release – without requiring Bureau of Prison approval as is currently the case – and allow for a prisoner to seek compassionate release in cases involving the death or incapacitation of their child’s primary caregiver.
  • The SAFE Justice Act would require the US Attorney General to provide training to federal correctional staff on how to better identify and respond to people with mental disabilities under their custody as well as on de-escalation techniques for their responses. This provision is consistent with a key recommendation from a recent Human Rights Watch report on use of force against inmates with mental disabilities.

The SAFE Justice Act is the outcome of the House Judiciary Committee’s task force on over-criminalization, chaired by Sensenbrenner, with Scott as its ranking member. Authorized in 2013, the task force assessed the massive growth of federal criminal offenses and the soaring federal prison population since the 1980s. Human Rights Watch submitted testimony to the task force addressing the issue of disproportionately long federal sentences.

The introduction of the SAFE Justice Act in the House of Representatives follows the introduction of several reform-minded bills in the Senate, including the Smarter Sentencing Act – which would cut the length of certain mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in half – and the flawed CORRECTIONS Act, which, as introduced, fails to address mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing enhancements at all.

Congress should pass the SAFE Justice Act as well as additional reforms to bring federal sentencing in line with principles of proportionality, fairness, and respect for human dignity, Human Rights Watch said.

“The SAFE Justice Act is not a cure-all, but a smartly crafted bill that would better align the federal prison system with its human rights obligations,” Ginatta said. “It’s a promising vehicle for change.”


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