By Meghan R. Olsowski
On October 1, 2015, U.S. senators from both parties joined forces to create a new bill titled, “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.” The main purpose of the bill is to further the sentencing reform initiative by decreasing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Many believe that this bill is the most groundbreaking bill in sentencing reform since the War on Drugs began in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In addition to addressing mandatory minimum sentences, the bill also notably addresses “three strikes” laws, reducing the penalty from life imprisonment to twenty-five years imprisonment. It prohibits solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. It implements many “good time” programs and rehabilitation practices within prisons, which can be used to shorten non-violent offenders’ time in prison. However, the most monumental part of the bill lies within its retroactive quality. Many offenders serving time under the original mandatory minimum sentences will be able to have years taken off their sentences.
While the bill attempts to eliminate many mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenses, it created or increased mandatory minimum sentences to a few offenses. The bill creates mandatory minimum sentences for two groups: (1) interstate domestic violence crimes that lead to death; and (2) individuals who provide support to terrorist organizations. And the bill increases the mandatory minimum sentence to fifteen years for felons who are caught unlawfully possessing a firearm.
This bill is only applicable to federals crimes and prisons, so it will not affect people who are housed in jails and state facilities. Many individuals and groups, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, feel as though this bill is a strong move towards positive change, but it is still not enough to affect the root of the real issue: eliminating mandatory minimum sentences altogether. While this bill may potentially do wonders for nonviolent offenders, there is still serious concern regarding how our country plans to provide sentencing and confinement reform to violent offenders. Fordham Law School Professor John Pfaff stated, “Prison populations will not drop significantly until we start asking how we can punish violet offenders more intelligently and less severely.” In order to discover answers for our ailing sentencing and confinement system, we must look at offenders on both ends of the spectrum.
On October 22, 2015, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to move the bill to the floor for a vote. It needs to be passed by the Senate, passed by the House, and signed by the President in order to become effective. Until then, we’re left wondering whether this potentially monumental bill will successfully implement some of the most powerful policy changes in criminal justice reform history.
The entire bill may be found here.
For a more thorough reading of the issue see:
Adam Bates, The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a Compromise, but a Pretty Good One, Cato Institute (Oct. 6, 2015, 1:32PM), http://www.cato.org/blog/sentencing-reform-corrections-act-compromise-pretty-good-one.
Carrie Johnson, Here’s One Thing Washington Agreed On This Week: Sentencing Reform, NPR (Oct. 3, 2015, 11:01PM),
Here are select articles from our publication that address sentencing reform:
Kimberly L. Patch, The Sentencing Reform Act: Reconsidering Rehabilitation as a Critical Consideration in Sentencing, 39 New Eng. J. on Crim. & Civ. Confinement 165 (2013).
Brian J. Foley, Reframing the Debate Over Excessive Sentences to Move Beyond the Eighth Amendment, 38 New Eng. J. on Crim. & Civ. Confinement 3 (2012).
Mary Price, Everything Old is New Again: Fixing Sentencing by Going Back to First Principles, 36 New Eng. J. on Crim. & Civ. Confinement 75 (2010).