Stalled Prison Bill Gets New Life With Sentencing Reform Measures

By Alfonso Serrano Aug 07, 2018

A long-stalled prison reform measure that sailed through the House earlier this year but met resistance in the Senate may see new life after Republican senators unveiled a proposal last week that would add moderate sentencing reforms to a compromise bill.

The new proposal received backing from President Donald Trump, according to an August 3 article from The Hill. It would combine the House-approved First Step Act with sentencing reforms championed by Democrats and some Republicans, who argue that mandatory minimum sentences have crammed United States prisons with nonviolent offenders.

In an open letter penned in May, several Democratic senators criticized the First Step Act as a "step backwards" for its omission of sentencing reforms.

"Our federal prison population has grown by over 700 percent since 1980, and federal prison spending has climbed nearly 600 percent," they wrote. "The largest increase in the federal prison population is nonviolent drug offenders, and this problem is made worse by inflexible mandatory minimum sentences."

The compromise offer presented to Trump last week by members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary provides several provisions, according to New York magazine. They include measures that would lower lifetime minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses to 25 years, and reduce 20-year minimum sentences for similar felonies by five years. 

The proposal would also retroactively reduce crack and cocaine sentencing disparities, which have disproportionately victimized communities of color.

Prison reform groups have cautiously applauded the compromise measure for its effort to reduce long sentences.

"It’s not over until it’s over, but we’re cautiously optimistic that even in a divided political climate, our nation’s leaders can come together to begin solving our mass incarceration crisis,” Ames Grawert, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said in a statement. "If this compromise materializes and includes key parts of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, the final bill would have our support and could win over other key leaders on the left and right.”

The compromise measure has received backing from key Republicans in the Senate and, according to negotiators cited by The Hill, could see a Senate vote this month.