Congress must make sentencing reform priority for public safety

Congress must make sentencing reform priority for public safety
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Modest sentencing reforms may be added to prison reform legislation, the First Step Act, currently pending in the Senate. The White House has been vocally supportive of prison reform, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE has appeared to warm to the possibility of adding sentencing reform to the bill.

Perhaps President Trump has realized that a long prison sentence may not always fit the crime. “There has to be a reform because it is very unfair right now,” he said in a recent interview. “It is very unfair to African Americans. It is very unfair to everybody.” He also praised Texas and Georgia, which have passed significant criminal justice reform, including sentencing reform, under Republican governors and legislatures.

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Sentencing reform is not a new subject in Congress. In 2014, the Senate Judiciary Committee marked up the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low level nonviolent drug offenders by half, expand the existing federal safety valve exception for mandatory minimums, and make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. The bill had strong support, with conservatives like Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTrump signs major conservation bill into law Tea Party rises up against McConnell's trillion relief plan Hillicon Valley: Twitter bans thousands of QAnon accounts | Bipartisan support grows for election funds in Senate stimulus bill | Senate committee advances bill to ban TikTok from federal devices MORE and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate Democrats prepare seven-figure spending spree in Texas On The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Trump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy MORE voting to advance it to the floor, but at the time, Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidKamala Harris to young Black women at conference: 'I want you to be ambitious' Obama calls filibuster 'Jim Crow relic,' backs new Voting Rights Act bill McConnell warns Democrats not to change filibuster rule MORE did not bring it to a vote.

Under the leadership of Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions Tensions flare as GOP's Biden probe ramps up  MORE, the Senate Judiciary Committee in recent years marked up two versions of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Like the Smarter Sentencing Act, both iterations of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act generated broad bipartisan support from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as from many members of both parties in the full chamber.

The First Step Act, however, has garnered even more support than the more comprehensive approach taken by the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and the inclusion of modest sentencing reforms could create a path to passage. Of course, some have aggressively pushed back against any sentencing reforms, including the most modest proposed ideas. Those who oppose sentencing reform believe that violent crime, which peaked nearly 30 years ago, has declined because of a reliance on lengthy prison sentences that mandatory minimum sentences bring.

University of Texas professor William Spelman has conducted research on the impact of incarceration and the decline in crime rates that began in the early 1990s. “Our research concluded that about 25 percent of the 1990s crime drop can be linked to increased incarceration,” Spelman said in a briefing published by Pew Charitable Trusts in 2015. “Incarceration rates flattened out in the 2000s, but crime rates kept dropping. So incarceration cannot account for the last 15 years of reductions.”

Now, the sentencing reforms that could be included in the First Step Act, or perhaps another vehicle, do not eliminate any mandatory minimum sentences. But these proposed reforms would apply a measure of common sense to federal sentencing law. For example, retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act would allow prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses when there was a 100 times greater sentence to seek a sentence reduction under the 2010 law, which lessened the disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine by more than five times. Prisoners would have to petition the court. Petitions may be denied upon review.

The proposed expansion of the existing federal exception to mandatory minimum sentences would simply allow nonviolent drug offenders with little to no criminal history to be sentenced below mandatory minimums. The proposed reform to 18 USC 924 would prevent federal prosecutors from stacking offenses and would make the sentencing enhancement under the law a true recidivist penalty as Congress intended.

Similarly modest in scope is a proposal to tailor sentencing enhancements under 21 USC 841 sought by federal prosecutors for defendants with prior offenses. The reform would redefine crimes that qualify for two of the five most frequent statutes of conviction carrying mandatory minimum penalties by both limiting the enhancements to serious drug felons and expanding them to serious violent felons, as well as pushing the penalty that mandates life in prison down to a sentence of 25 years.

These rearrangements of 21 USC 841 would ensure that enhancement and the lengthy sentences they bring are only used on the most dangerous criminals and not spent instead on low level nonviolent drug offenders. This kind of “smart on crime” legal approach goes hand in hand with the desire of President Trump to be tough on crime, which is most effective when the right crimes are addressed with the right penalties.

Those who oppose adding any sentencing reform to the First Step Act are stuck in the 1980s and are completely ignoring criminal justice reform successes at the state level. Combined with the sentencing reform that could be added to the bill, the First Step Act would bring these successes to the federal level to enhance public safety across the country.

Jason Pye is the vice president of legislative affairs at FreedomWorks.