After decades of increasing incarceration rates and prison sentences, the United States is beginning to move away from harsher sentences, as disproportionately severe, discriminatory in their application, ineffective, and devastating to communities.

Inmates walk the hallways during a media tour of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 7, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

On Friday, it was the United States Sentencing Commission’s turn, approving a series of amendments to its sentencing guidelines, which recommend the length of sentences for federal crimes. The move could result in shorter prison terms under certain circumstances, and the Commission refrained from recommending harsher sentencing ranges for some immigration offenses.

One amendment strengthened the Commission’s “compassionate release” policy. The logic behind compassionate release is simple: circumstances change. A person in prison serving a long sentence may become seriously ill or may face chronic medical conditions due to aging. A prisoner may have children younger than 18, and the children’s caregiver may die or become incapable of caring for them. In these and similar circumstances, there may be a compelling reason to release a person from their sentence.

As we have documented, the US Bureau of Prisons has played an unsparing gatekeeper role in its administration of compassionate release, granting only a handful of requests over the past several years. On Friday, the Commission pushed back, both expressing concerns about the Bureau’s lack of compassionate release grants and expanding the types of circumstances where compassionate release should be considered.

In another amendment, the Commission refrained from lengthening sentences for certain immigration offenses known as “illegal reentry” crimes, for those who cross into the US without proper documentation. Illegal reentry cases are taking up a major chunk (22 percent) of the federal caseload, and the Commission had been considering increasing the severity of those sentences (and allowing for even longer sentences if persons had been previously deported). In ultimately deciding against those increases, the Commission acknowledged – as we argued in comments on those proposals – that many people who “reenter” the United States illegally are doing so to reunite with US-based family.

The Commission was wise to exercise restraint in the reentry cases. The US immigration system is in disarray, and attempting to use longer sentences to deter people from rejoining their families is an improper and cruel use of the criminal justice system. In fact, we have recommended moving away from criminalizing these types of immigration offenses at all.

In general, US federal policymakers appear to be moving away from their reliance on harsher sentences, from reform efforts in Congress to President Obama’s push to make more widespread use of commutations. Not all of the Commission’s Friday amendments reflected similar restraint. But its steps on compassionate release and on illegal reentry cases showed that sentencing policy can also be eased. Other policymakers should follow suit.