Spotlight Exclusives

Bipartisan Momentum for Sentencing Reform Grows

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Bipartisan legislation to reform federal sentencing laws received a boost earlier this month when a collection of leading conservatives, including Americans for Tax Reform۪s Grover Norquist, expressed their support in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). The bill, also backed by many progressive organizations, would end or reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of nonviolent drug crimes. It was approved in January by a strong bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee, allowing it to advance in the legislative process.

The proposed reforms, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, come in the wake of numerous studies expressing concern about the adverse effects of mandatory minimum sentences on poor communities and neighborhoods. A 2014 report by the nonpartisan National Research Council explains that “the U.S. prison population is largely drawn from the most disadvantaged part of the nation۪s population.” Other studies contend that high incarceration rates lead to high-risk sexual behavior, juvenile delinquency, and an increase in poverty.

In a 2013 Spotlight Exclusive Commentary, Villanova University professors Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon explored incarceration۪s harmful impacts on low-income families. They argued that the lost earning potential of former inmates, the reduction in marriage rates, and the constant churn of felons between prisons and certain communities have all contributed to increased levels of poverty.

Support for the Smarter Sentencing Act has come from both liberal and conservative policymakers and think tanks. The legislation was introduced by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) last year and has been praised by scholars from the conservative-leaning Cato Institute and Texas Policy Foundation, as well as more progressive groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sentencing Project.

This most recent congressional push for reform comes at a time when the Obama administration and various state governments have already used their own authorities to reform sentencing guidelines. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has launched a “Smart on Crime” campaign, which creates a set of federal guidelines for prosecutors designed to limit their pursuit of severe mandatory minimums to only the most serious drug-related offenses. Additionally, 29 states have enacted at least minor reforms over the last decade, according to a Vera Institute for Justice report released earlier this year.

Sentencing reform appears to have a real chance for bipartisan action in Congress. Spotlight will continue to follow these developments as they relate to low-income people and communities.

Posted by Will
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