April 27, 2018
By Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Sentencing reform bill will fight crime
By Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa
In the 1980s, with our nation facing aninflux of drug crimes, Congress passed into law stiff penalties targeting alllevels of offenders. The goal was to deter crime through harsh sentences. While well-intentioned, these policies camewith a cost. Over time, prisons began to fill up with offenders of all stripes.Lower-level, nonviolent drug offenders were locked up alongside career criminalmasterminds. Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences offered little flexibility forjudges to take individual circumstances into account and left scant prospectsfor rehabilitation. Taxpayers shell out more than $7 billionannually – roughly 25 percent of the entire Justice Department budget – just tohouse the ballooning federal prison population, almost half ofwhich is serving time for drug crimes. These policies have been in place for morethan three decades now, and yet we are facing a new wave of drug crimes – thistime with crowded prisons syphoning scarce resources away from other lawenforcement priorities. It’s clear that the policies of the 1980s need a freshlook. We need a more strategic approach to drugsentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminalsand drug kingpins instead of non-violent, lower level offenders. That is why Iworked with several of my colleagues in the Senate to craft the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This legislation is the product of years ofthoughtful bipartisan deliberations and has earned the support of lawmakers,advocates and experts from across the political spectrum. The bill is tough on crime and focuses lawenforcement efforts on the worst criminals. But it also promotes fairness insentencing, especially for lower-level, nonviolent offenders. Similar reformsat the state level have reduced crime, closed prisons and cut taxpayercosts. This bill strengthens importantcrime-fighting tools and aids in the fight against the opioid epidemic. Itpreserves cooperation incentives to help law enforcement take down seriouscriminals, and stiffens penalties for violent felons. The legislation adds new mandatorysentences for federal domestic violence crimes and weapons trafficking toterrorists. And it supports the fight against the opioid epidemic throughenhanced penalties for traffickers of the deadly drug fentanyl. Judges have criticized the currentsentencing guidelines because they sometimes require judges to impose harshpenalties that don’t fit the underlying crimes. Our comprehensive bill grantsjudges greater discretion at sentencing. Mandatory minimum penalties would be preservedto ensure that criminals face clear consequences for their actions. Butpenalties would be lowered under the bill for lower-level, nonviolent offendersto give judges additional discretion at sentencing. Judges would still be free to impose stiffcriminal penalties, but they could also take into account individualcircumstances to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. This approach wouldprevent prisons from being overcrowded with lower-level, nonviolent criminalsserving unnecessarily long sentences. In the interest of fairness, the bill wouldmake these reforms available to some inmates who have already been sentencedunder harsh mandatory minimum laws. Under the bill, an inmate with a minimalcriminal history could request that a judge review his or her case to determineif the sentence should be reduced. Notably, violent and career criminals wouldnot qualify for this relief. Giving judges more discretion oversentencing has another benefit: it reduces the amount of taxpayer dollars thatmust be spent on prisons. The Sentencing Reform and CorrectionsAct would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This frees upresources to pay for the prison reform programs that the Trump administrationsupports. These programs are designed to reduce recidivism and help prisonersreturn to the workforce. Savings from our bill could also be used tosupport law enforcement efforts to fight the opioid epidemic and go after majordrug importers and distributers. Without sentencing reform, Congress would haveto appropriate additional funds for these programs, potentially adding to ourgrowing budget deficit, projected to be more than $1 trillion by 2020. The Sentencing Reform and CorrectionsAct has united policymakers across the political spectrum. It isco-sponsored by more than a quarter of the Senate, evenly divided amongRepublicans and Democrats. The bill is also backed by a diverse arrayof groups including FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union, PrisonFellowship, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil LibertiesUnion, the NAACP, and Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime andIncarceration – a group of more than 200 respectedlaw enforcement officials from around the country. No other proposal enjoys thesame level of bipartisan support. The notion that Congress can enactmeaningful criminal justice reform by focusing solely on the back-end of theprocess without addressing the underlying disparities in prison sentencing isnaïve and unproductive. There will never be enough funding forback-end prison reform programs as long as there is a steady stream of newinmates with lengthy sentences disproportionate to their crimes. Instead ofkeeping lower-level, nonviolent inmates in prisons longer for no good reason,we must work to ensure that our limited resources are used to go after ourworst criminals and to prevent inmates from committing new crimes when theyleave prison. President Trump has made his priorities oncriminal justice reform clear. He wants effective tough-on-crime legislationthat doesn’t overburden taxpayers. The Sentencing Reform and CorrectionsAct achieves those goals and more. The bill recalibrates criminal sentencingto ensure that our harshest penalties are used on our worst criminals. It savesmoney through better sentencing policy and allows law enforcement to put thismoney towards law enforcement priorities like going after major drug criminals. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Actwould also reduce the number of prisoners who commit crimes once again aftertheir release. It would help law enforcement officers do their job to keepcommunities safe while improving fairness in our justice system. The bill proves that Congress can be toughon crime while enacting reasonable and responsible public policy. And,importantly, in an increasingly polarized political environment, the SentencingReform and Corrections Act is the only proposal that has the votes necessary tobecome law. I look forward to continuing to work withthe Trump administration and my colleagues in the Senate and House on theimportant issue of criminal justice reform.
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