Making Government Work

This One Bill Could Make Criminal Justice Reform a Reality

October 5, 2015
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This One Bill Could Make Criminal Justice Reform a Reality
Inside a California prison. In 2011, the courts found that California jailed nearly twice as many prisoners as its facilities were designed to hold. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
After years of legislative gridlock, this issue is bringing the left and right together.

In 1988, a powerful 30-second TV spot scuttled a presidential campaign and altered American politics for the next three decades. The no-frills ad claimed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who that summer led George H.W. Bush by 17 points in the polls, offered “weekend prison passes” to first-degree murders like Willie Horton, who while on one of these furloughs, stabbed a man and raped his girlfriend during a brutal home invasion. “The ghost of Willie Horton has loomed over any conversation about sentencing reform for over 30 years,” Sen. Dick Durbin, tells The Marshall Project, revving up incarceration rates and making criminal justice reform seemingly impossible.

But as the consequences of our nation’s tough-on-crime policies have become increasingly clear — in cost and governmental overreach, to Republicans, and for Democrats, in preventing rehabilitation and furthering the racial divide— progress is happening. Last Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators, including Durbin, introduced a bill to accompany the House’s SAFE Justice Act. As we’ve written before, Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presented the largest obstacle to criminal justice reform. But after three years of lobbying and political maneuvering (Sen. Chuck Schumer compared it to putting together “a Rubik’s cube,”) The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 has Grassley’s support and now looks like the best chance of getting a bill to President Barack Obama’s desk.

“The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety,” Durbin said at the bill’s announcement. “Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done.”

The bill is modeled on reforms in Texas that significantly decreased the number of incarcerated in the Lone Star State. If passed, it would reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for those with drug and firearm offenses. It would also limit the application of Three Strikes, which mandates a life sentence after three felonies, to serious violent and serious drug felonies. Perhaps most notably, these reforms would apply retroactively. Other provisions include rehabilitation behind bars and a ban on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison.

Already, the legislation has amassed a powerful set of co-sponsors. On the Republican side, there’s John Cornyn (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah) and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham (South Carolina). On the left, there’s Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Cory Booker (New Jersey) and Schumer (New York).

These two pieces of legislation aren’t perfect. “Our broken criminal justice system can’t be fixed in one year, with one bill,” says Van Jones, co-founder of #Cut50, a group lobbying to cut the prison population in half within the next decade. And as a staunch defender of ensuring “access to justice for both the victims and the accused,” Grassley won’t let Democrats totally undo mandatory minimum sentences.

“But it is cause for celebration that there are bipartisan bills to discuss at all. And in a town as broken and dysfunctional as Washington D.C.,” Jones says, “we now have actual legislation on the table.” These pieces of “concrete legislation” in both houses should “give Congress the opportunity to go on record and debate these issues. It’s time to schedule hearings, markups and floor votes,” Jones adds. “Let’s not let politics get in the way of progress.”

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