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After months of hesitation and secret negotiation, United States senators Thursday morning unveiled a bill designed to reform the federal criminal justice system, touching on everything from the sentencing of drug offenders to mandatory minimum sentences. While it still falls far short of what’s needed, elements of the bill would bring genuine improvements.

The bill, named the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, appears to be a product of an uneasy alliance between Republicans and Democrats, headlined by Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, a close-to-fervent supporter of the mandatory minimum sentences that have helped to exponentially ratchet upwards the US federal incarceration rate. This proposal follows the US House of Representatives’ own comprehensive criminal justice reform bill, the SAFE Justice Act.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) (at podium) hold a news conference to discuss bi-partisan criminal justice reform, The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington October 1, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters

The bill offers some important reforms. It creates the possibility of parole for people sentenced to life for crimes committed when they were under 18, as we have urged for years. It expands the compassionate release program to allow inmates older than 60 to seek release from prison, potentially addressing some of the flaws of the federal compassionate release program we have documented. It appears to reduce, if not eliminate, solitary confinement for youth in the federal system, a recommendation we made in 2012. And, it’s good to see that many of the sentencing provisions do embrace retroactivity, so that people already sentenced under old, unfair laws will have a chance for the new sentence reductions to apply to them.

But beyond the retroactivity issues, in its sentencing provisions, the bill resembles an accordion – it shrinks and then expands.

How it shrinks: Currently, if you commit a serious federal drug offense and have two prior drug felonies on your record, prosecutors can seek a mandatory minimum life sentence. Under this new Senate bill, that minimum would shrink to 25 years. How it expands: Under the bill, it wouldn’t just be drug felonies that could enhance a sentence – it could be other felonies as well.

It shrinks: Currently, if you use a gun in the furtherance of a federal crime, you could face an enhanced mandatory minimum of 25 years if you have a prior gun-related federal conviction. Under the new bill, that’s reduced to 15 years. And it expands: those 15 years would apply if the prior were a state or federal crime.

It shrinks by creating a safety valve for judges to avoid sentencing under an oppressive 10-year mandatory minimum for drug crimes, and it expands by adding new mandatory minimums and raising certain statutory sentence maximums.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is the progeny of strange bedfellows in a Congress known for getting little done. It proposes some important reforms, but its inconsistencies make it far weaker than the House’s SAFE Justice Act. To be sure, the United States justice system will improve if something like the Senate bill is passed, but in conference, Congress should continue the bipartisan effort to make the final bill even better. The work to fix this nation’s criminal justice system, which puts too many people behind bars for too long, demands nothing less.


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