The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) was introduced in the Senate with considerable fanfare last October. But seven months later, it still hasn’t come to the Senate floor for a vote.
Instead, for the past few months, key stakeholders and members of Congress have been discussing and negotiating revisions to this legislation—and for good reason. As much as advocates would like to see the much-needed criminal justice reforms incorporated in the SRCA passed sooner rather than later, it’s just as important to continue to build upon the unprecedented bipartisan support for this reform and ensure passage.
The revisions, which were indeed met with bipartisan support, further focus sentencing changes on those convicted of low-level offenses and prohibit any application of these changes to serious drug or violent offenses. The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) has thrown its support behind the revised SRCA, saying the measure now “strikes the appropriate balance” in that regard. Most recently, during National Police Week, the bill gained endorsements from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Major County Sheriffs' Association (MCSA), two of the most influential law enforcement organizations in the country.
Importantly, this legislation also strengthens drug-addiction rehabilitation and mental health treatment where needed, along with job training and vocational counseling. It also includesseveral important provisions designed to address the many barriers associated with having a criminal record, including expanding access to record-clearing and sealing or expunging juvenile criminal records under certain circumstances. Preparing people who are incarcerated for re-entry into society is critical if we are to slow the revolving federal prison doors and reduce the recidivism rate. Eliminating unnecessary barriers for those with criminal records and the formerly incarcerated will help them be law-abiding citizens, sparing future victims, saving money and making our communities safer and stronger.
Beyond the human impact, spending on our federal justice system has become unsustainable. The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget has skyrocketed in the past 35 years to $7.5 billion. That’s seven times what it was in the early 1980s, and the Bureau of Prisons now gobbles up fully one-quarter of the Justice Department’s entire budget.
At the same time, between 1980 and 2015, the federal prison population increased a staggering 734 percent, from 24,640 to 205,723. Meanwhile, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, “the average length of time served by federal inmates more than doubled,” from 17.9 months in 1988 to 37.5 months in 2012.
Much of these increases are directly attributable to legislated “mandatory minimum” sentencing, which effectively deprives judges of any discretion to weigh the individual circumstances of each case.
Our addiction to incarceration has produced tragic consequences for our communities. One in three Americans have a criminal record and nearly half of U.S. children have a parent with a record, presenting life-long barriers to opportunity—including employment, education, housing—for entire families.
The 32,500-member NDAA particularly applauded revisions to the bill’s retroactivity provisions that ensure inmates with a serious, violent felony on their record would not benefit from the reduced mandatory-minimum sentences in this reform package.
These and other reformed policies are aimed at ensuring that penalties more appropriately fit crimes, implementing rehabilitative programs to reduce recidivism, and lowering barriers to opportunity for those with criminal records, affording them and their families a second chance.
To that end, Section 208(c) of SRCA has won the support of Concerned Veterans of America because it provides incarcerated veterans who will ultimately return to society one day access to the full range of Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and services.
All told, this sort of criminal justice reform is desperately needed at the federal level (and at the state level, for that matter) to make our justice system less costly and more cost-effective, as well as smarter and fairer. The revised Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is an important step in the right direction. It’s time to put it to a vote.
Adam Brandon is the president and CEO of FreedomWorks. Todd A. Cox is the director of criminal justice policy at the Center for American Progress.