Just the Facts

Five Facts: How Past Criminal Justice Reform Efforts Set Up This Year’s Debate

By No Labels
May 22, 2018 | Blog

In 2016, senators from both parties came together in a significant and bipartisan effort to improve the American criminal justice system, from sentencing laws to prison conditions. One senator said it was the best chance at reform in a generation.

It did not come to pass. Despite discussion and compromise, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was never brought to the floor for a vote. Yet the debate did advance the issue, and prison reforms are currently front and center on Capitol Hill. Here’s what you need to know.


Criminal justice reform is tough in an election year

Though the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act had bipartisan support, and was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, it also had opponents who were focused on the bill’s provisions to lower federal mandatory minimum prison sentences . Those are the minimum sentences that judges are required by law to impose on people who are convicted of certain crimes. The opponents were tough, and it was a presidential election year. Even some supporters of the bill said that it fell victim to election-year politics.


Shifting political conditions make consensus difficult

The same legislation was reintroduced in the current Congress and gained approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee in February of this year, the second time the committee passed the bill. But the political landscape is different, and the Trump administration has its own priorities when it comes to prisons and corrections. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a letter to senators saying the Justice Department opposed the bill. The legislation has thus far not advanced.


Prison reforms draw less opposition than sentencing provisions

It’s helpful to separate “sentencing” reform from “prison” reform. Sentencing reform refers to requirements for how long people should be incarcerated for certain crimes, and it tends to be more controversial. Prison reform is aimed at reforming prison conditions and helping inmates adapt after release, and it garners far less criticism. While many lawmakers are ardent that the U.S. must address prison and sentencing reform at the same time, others say that Congress should focus on enacting prison reforms, which seem more likely to draw consensus.


The ‘First Step Act’ has momentum

Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, recently introduced the First Step Act (H.R. 5682), a package of reforms designed to reduce repeat offenses and help prisoners find work and be productive after release. It does not address sentencing. The bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee and backed by the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus. It could get a vote in the House this week. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate but its prospects are unclear.


Prison reform is getting a push from the administration

The Trump administration is interested in passing a prison reform bill. The White House held a summit on prison reform last week and has announced a list of reform efforts that the president supports. “Prison reform is an issue that unites people from across our political spectrum,” Trump said. “It’s an amazing thing. Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to re-enter our society as productive, law-abiding citizens.” 

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