This op-ed was originally published at Georgia Pol on May 2, 2016.
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), unveiled improvements to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S. 2123. The measure is designed to reform federal sentencing policies, bring substantive rehabilitative programming to federal prisons, address the growing costs of incarceration, and enhance public safety by focusing on reducing prisoners’ risk of recidivism.
Criminal justice reform is not a new concept. The movement has been growing since 2007, when Texas – a state known for being tough on crime – decided to launch its justice reinvestment initiative. Rather than spending $523 million on immediate prison construction needs, lawmakers, instead, appropriated $241 million on the first in a string of criminal justice reforms. The reforms were overwhelmingly successful, as prison populations declined and recidivism dropped. Texas now has its lowest crime rate since 1968 and saved taxpayers $3 billion.
More than 30 states have followed what is known as the “Texas model.” These states include Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. Under the leadership of Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia, too, has become a leader in the criminal justice reform effort. The Deal administration has pursued a number of criminal justice reforms, including drug courts, a “safety valve” exception to the state’s mandatory minimum sentences, and reentry initiatives designed to help offenders become productive, taxpaying citizens.
Last week, Governor Deal signed his fifth criminal justice reform bill into law. Deal noted that the process isn’t “one and done,” and said he fully expects to have more reforms to become law during his tenure.
Congress, though, has failed to keep up with the states. Thankfully, that could change this year.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act finds support from an ideologically diverse set of senators. Among the cosponsors of the bill are conservatives like Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to moderates – such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). Progressive supporters include Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
These are unlikely allies, for sure, but it’s not the first time that a bipartisan coalition of senators have come together to back a bill designed to bring some meaningful reforms to federal criminal justice system. In 2013 and, again, last year, Lee and Durbin, introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would have cut in half federal mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent, expanded the existing federal safety valve to those with little to no criminal history, and made retroactive the sentencing reductions under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powered cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.
Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) cosponsored the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 502, in March 2015.
Many of these reforms in the Smarter Sentencing Act, or, at least, the spirit of them, found their way into the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The bill would expand the federal safety valve, make retroactive the changes under the Fair Sentencing Act, and reduce the mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement to those with a prior drug conviction from 25 years to life to 15 to 20 years.
The manager’s amendment that was introduced Thursday makes some significant changes related to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), a law that has recently come under scrutiny by the Supreme Court, and 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Originally, these two laws were altered to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and make the changes retroactive. FreedomWorks and Families Against Mandatory Minimums made the case for the reforms in the original bill in a recent issue brief.
In the new version of the bill, all changes to the Armed Career Criminal Act, a law that Justice Antonin Scalia once called a “farce playing in federal courts throughout the nation,” have been removed. The provision that reformed 924(c) is now significantly limited. Meant to be used against recidivist violent offenders, this particular law has been used to prosecute first-time, nonviolent offenders, like Weldon Angelos, as recidivists.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act finds support from a number of outside organizations as diverse as its cosponsors, including the National District Attorneys Association, FreedomWorks, Americans for Tax Reform, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Center for American Progress, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Unfortunately, some in the Senate are trying to spread misinformation about the bill. Sadly, Perdue is among them. After the changes were unveiled Thursday, Perdue’s office sent a release in which the freshman senator called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act a “criminal leniency bill.”
“The bill’s definition of what constitutes a ‘serious violent felony’ creates a loophole that would allow these serious felons to slip through the system,” said Perdue. “As currently written, this bill would put thousands of dangerous felons back on the streets early, potentially endangering our families and communities, and therefore I still cannot support it.”
Again, the sentencing provisions of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act are very similar to or in the spirit of those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act, which Perdue cosponsored. Did he not read the Smarter Sentencing Act before he cosponsored it? Has he even bothered to read the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act? Perdue has either had a significant change of heart on criminal justice reform, or he’s completely bought into the misinformation campaign being waged by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a good step in the right direction. It’s not the answer to all that ails the federal criminal justice system, but it does follow the reforms implemented by a number of traditionally Republican states. Here’s hoping Perdue’s demagoguery on criminal justice reform doesn’t stall one of the few things we can actually get done in the Senate this year.
Jason Pye is the director of communications for FreedomWorks. Follow him on Twitter at @pye. FreedomWorks is a partner organization of the U.S. Justice Action Network and the Coalition for Public Safety.