Congress must pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015

Congress must pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015
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President Obama recently took an important step in making our criminal justice system more just and less criminal. He ended solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons and reformed how the punishment is applied to adults. The president’s actions will impact about 10,000 federal inmates and ultimately help many currently in prison to be rehabilitated into society.

The psychological effects of solitary confinement — on youths especially — can be severely counterproductive. The Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence said, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The American Civil Liberties Union has reported that the isolation of juveniles can impact brain development and have damaging long-term effects on mental health. How can any offender’s behavioral problems change with zero contact with any outside influences? Keeping minors and low-level offenders out of solitary confinement is an important step in keeping them out of trouble as their lives move forward.

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While the president’s action is an excellent start, the work of meaningful criminal justice reform is far from finished. It is now time for Congress to step up to the plate. America has only 5 percent of the world’s population but 20 percent of the world’s prison population — clearly our system needs an overhaul. Our communities, from citizen leaders to law enforcement officers, demand robust solutions, which is why the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 deserves bipartisan support and swift passage.

Various studies, including a recent one from The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, have shown that longer jail sentences have minimal effect on future crime or increasing public safety. To that end, if we want a safer and more just America we need policies that aren’t simply tough on crime but smart on crime. Among other important steps, this bipartisan legislation would reform mandatory minimum sentencing and increase rehabilitation efforts.

Simply put, this bill offers sentencing rules that make sense. For example, it addresses the plight of 6,500 inmates ready to be rehabilitated but who are stuck in legal “limbo” because the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 does not apply retroactively. It also further adjusts mandatory minimums to address a prison system that has been overcrowded due to drug-related offenses.

Drug offenders make up over half of the U.S. prison population, according to a 2012 Urban Institute Report. Part of the reason for this is an overly harsh system of mandatory minimums that has increased the amount of time prisoners spend behind bars. Currently these sentences range from five years for one offense to life in prison without possibility of parole for a third offense.

This bill maintains strong penalties in a responsible way: changing the life sentence to a 25-year minimum and cutting the existing 20-year sentence on the second offense to 15 years. Additionally, it gives judges greater authority and discretion to impose shorter sentences on a case-by-case basis and develops new mandatory minimums for violent offenses like domestic abuse.

Of course, sentencing is just the start. This legislation also allows inmates to work toward an earlier release date through participation in programs aimed at their education and reentry into society. This smart reform affords all ages the opportunity — juvenile offenders and older inmates alike — the chance for earlier release.

This is particularly important — according to a report from the ACLU, inmates between the ages of 50 and 65 are not only the least likely to recommit crimes (while being the most expensive to care for) but are also the largest and most rapidly increasing population in American prisons. Programming reforms will help these individuals transition from being an unnecessary burden on the prison system to being contributing members of society.

States have shown that these ideas work and momentum is building. The same year Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the state of South Carolina eliminated the mandatory sentence for the first drug possession offense. A year earlier, New York gave judges more discretion, and Rhode Island repealed all mandatory sentences for drug offenses. In 2007, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) called for legislation that focused on rehabilitation to help combat skyrocketing prison costs. 

Even with this progress, it is time for Congress to set the proper tone and demonstrate national leadership to codify and strengthen states’ ongoing efforts. Such reforms require a civil and political debate at the national level that matches our demonstrated civic
convictions.

Our corrections system is in dire need of correcting. We need to be smart, not simply hard, on crime. That means ending counterproductive punishments like solitary confinement for minors. That means sentencing that makes sense. That means a system designed to help rehabilitate ex-offenders to the benefit of society, not one designed to keep them imprisoned at a cost to society.

As leaders of two nationally respected organizations that are historically committed to identifying, supporting and promoting policies that reduce crime and create and sustain safe communities, we are united with a single mission to enact smart legislation, like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which we believe will guide our country towards more sensible, equal and just criminal justice policy. 

Benjamin is mayor of Columbia, S.C., and president of the African American Mayors Association. Thomas is president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, based in Alexandria, Va.