In the 1980s, with our nation facing an influx of drug crimes, Congress passed into law stiff penalties targeting all levels of offenders. The goal was to deter crime through harsh sentences.
While well-intentioned, these policies came with a cost. Over time, prisons began to fill up with offenders of all stripes. Lower-level, nonviolent drug offenders were locked up alongside career criminal masterminds. Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences offered little flexibility for judges to take individual circumstances into account and left scant prospects for rehabilitation.
Taxpayers shell out more than $7 billion annually – roughly 25 percent of the entire Justice Department budget – just to house the ballooning federal prison population, almost half of which is serving time for drug crimes.
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These policies have been in place for more than three decades now, and yet we are facing a new wave of drug crimes – this time with crowded prisons syphoning scarce resources away from other law enforcement priorities. It’s clear that the policies of the 1980s need a fresh look.
We need a more strategic approach to drug sentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of non-violent, lower level offenders. That is why I worked with several of my colleagues in the Senate to craft the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
This legislation is the product of years of thoughtful bipartisan deliberations and has earned the support of lawmakers, advocates and experts from across the political spectrum.
The bill is tough on crime and focuses law enforcement efforts on the worst criminals. But it also promotes fairness in sentencing, especially for lower-level, nonviolent offenders. Similar reforms at the state level have reduced crime, closed prisons and cut taxpayer costs.
This bill strengthens important crime-fighting tools and aids in the fight against the opioid epidemic. It preserves cooperation incentives to help law enforcement take down serious criminals, and stiffens penalties for violent felons.
The legislation adds new mandatory sentences for federal domestic violence crimes and weapons trafficking to terrorists. And it supports the fight against the opioid epidemic through enhanced penalties for traffickers of the deadly drug fentanyl.
Judges have criticized the current sentencing guidelines because they sometimes require judges to impose harsh penalties that don’t fit the underlying crimes. Our comprehensive bill grants judges greater discretion at sentencing.
Mandatory minimum penalties would be preserved to ensure that criminals face clear consequences for their actions. But penalties would be lowered under the bill for lower-level, nonviolent offenders to give judges additional discretion at sentencing.
Judges would still be free to impose stiff criminal penalties, but they could also take into account individual circumstances to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. This approach would prevent prisons from being overcrowded with lower-level, nonviolent criminals serving unnecessarily long sentences.
In the interest of fairness, the bill would make these reforms available to some inmates who have already been sentenced under harsh mandatory minimum laws. Under the bill, an inmate with a minimal criminal history could request that a judge review his or her case to determine if the sentence should be reduced. Notably, violent and career criminals would not qualify for this relief.
Giving judges more discretion over sentencing has another benefit: it reduces the amount of taxpayer dollars that must be spent on prisons.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This frees up resources to pay for the prison reform programs that the Trump administration supports. These programs are designed to reduce recidivism and help prisoners return to the workforce.
Savings from our bill could also be used to support law enforcement efforts to fight the opioid epidemic and go after major drug importers and distributers. Without sentencing reform, Congress would have to appropriate additional funds for these programs, potentially adding to our growing budget deficit, projected to be more than $1 trillion by 2020.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has united policymakers across the political spectrum. It is co-sponsored by more than a quarter of the Senate, evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats.
The bill is also backed by a diverse array of groups including FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration – a group of more than 200 respected law enforcement officials from around the country. No other proposal enjoys the same level of bipartisan support.
The notion that Congress can enact meaningful criminal justice reform by focusing solely on the back-end of the process without addressing the underlying disparities in prison sentencing is naïve and unproductive.
There will never be enough funding for back-end prison reform programs as long as there is a steady stream of new inmates with lengthy sentences disproportionate to their crimes. Instead of keeping lower-level, nonviolent inmates in prisons longer for no good reason, we must work to ensure that our limited resources are used to go after our worst criminals and to prevent inmates from committing new crimes when they leave prison.
President Trump has made his priorities on criminal justice reform clear. He wants effective tough-on-crime legislation that doesn’t overburden taxpayers. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act achieves those goals and more.
The bill recalibrates criminal sentencing to ensure that our harshest penalties are used on our worst criminals. It saves money through better sentencing policy and allows law enforcement to put this money towards law enforcement priorities like going after major drug criminals.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would also reduce the number of prisoners who commit crimes once again after their release. It would help law enforcement officers do their job to keep communities safe while improving fairness in our justice system.
The bill proves that Congress can be tough on crime while enacting reasonable and responsible public policy. And, importantly, in an increasingly polarized political environment, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is the only proposal that has the votes necessary to become law.
I look forward to continuing to work with the Trump administration and my colleagues in the Senate and House on the important issue of criminal justice reform.