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The federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. The prison is one of 130 federal facilities to which convicted federal drug defendants can be sent. © 2001 Andy Clark/REUTERS

A group of Republican and Democrat senators have reintroduced a bill that, if enacted, would be an important milestone in the fight for rights-respecting criminal justice reforms in the United States.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), seeks to balance the interests of criminal justice reformers and law enforcement. Like all compromises, it contains good – and flawed – provisions.

On the plus side, the bill finally provides for the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine and sought to correct the vastly longer sentences imposed, mostly on African Americans, for crack convictions. This would bring the US in compliance with human rights standards requiring people already sentenced under old, unfair laws have a chance to benefit from new sentence reductions.

The bill will modestly reduce the numbers of federal drug offenders who can receive mandatory minimum sentences, slightly curbing federal prosecutors’ power to threaten and impose extremely long sentences, as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2013 report. Finally, the bill will improve reentry programs for people who are returning to their communities and families.

Less helpful are provisions that would increase penalties beyond already-existing lengthy sentences for federal offenders categorized as drug traffickers, recidivists, or violent offenders.

While the bill’s passage would be a step forward in reform efforts, its prospects remain unclear. Last year’s bill passed 15-5 out of the Senate Judiciary Committee but was never brought to the floor for a vote. Unfortunately, then-Senator Jeff Sessions was a staunch opponent. As attorney general, he has already rolled back other rational reforms undertaken by his predecessor and could continue to undermine the progress of this bill despite no longer having a vote.

The bill’s sponsors had delayed introduction in hopes of receiving a sign of support from the White House. To date, that sign has not come, although media reports suggest senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner is supportive. 

Congress should pass these incremental, bipartisan reforms quickly. Basic fairness, actual justice, and the fundamental rights of thousands of criminal defendants hang in the balance. 

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