Senate Judiciary Committee Advances Bill on Criminal Justice Reform

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in a vote of 15-5. The bill grants judges greater sentencing flexibility for certain low-level drug offenders and establishes recidivism reduction programs, while targeting violent criminals.  

 Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) is an original cosponsor of the legislation. Below are his remarks from today’s markup, as prepared for delivery, and a video of Lee correcting misconceptions about the bill can be viewed here.  

“Since my time as a prosecutor, I have been concerned by the excesses of our federal criminal justice system.  In many cases where there is no evidence of actual violence, the long sentences required by federal mandatory minimums are unjust. That’s why, more than two years ago now, Senator Durbin and I first introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act. I believe we can make sentencing more fair and efficient without reducing public safety.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act achieves that goal by reducing the most severe penalties that often lead to disproportionate outcomes, by expanding the availability of safety valve relief, and by increasing opportunities and incentives for rehabilitative programming in federal prison.  

“Our criminal justice system has to be flexible enough to apply in many different situations. Prosecutors and judges must have the ability to impose lengthy sentences on serious offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety, just as they must have the ability to impose modest sentences on those who violate our laws but do not pose an ongoing threat to public safety. So this bill leaves untouched the maximum penalty levels that exist under current law, and for some offenders, it increases those punishments.  It also does not eliminate any mandatory minimum sentences but instead takes a targeted approach, reducing the harshest mandatory penalties and providing limited relief for low-level offenders with limited criminal history.  

“It is not just to keep people in jail until they are 70 or 80 just because they sold drugs or had a gun. Unfortunately, this is precisely the situation we have created with many of our lengthy mandatory prison sentences, as you who have heard me tell about Weldon Angelos well know.  Sentences like these are just too high: they impose real costs, both human and financial; they are out of step with American tradition; and they have to be fixed.  It’s not sufficient anymore to say that sentences like these – sentences that don’t fit the crime – are the cost of doing business.  They aren’t – we can fix them, and this bill does.”  

The bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening and establishing new outlets for individuals with minimal non-felony criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law.  The bill also reduces certain mandatory minimums, providing judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences, and preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins.   

In addition to reducing prison terms for certain offenders through sentencing reform, qualifying inmates can earn reduced sentences through recidivism reduction programs outlined in the CORRECTIONS Act introduced by Cornyn and Whitehouse. The bill also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act and certain statutory reforms that address inequities in drug sentences.  

The bill is the product of a thoughtful bipartisan deliberation. In addition to Senator Lee, original cosponsors include Senators Grassley (R-IA), Durbin (D-IL), Cornyn (R-TX), Whitehouse (D-RI), Schumer (D-NY), Graham (R-SC), Leahy (D-VT), Booker (D-NJ), and Scott (R-SC).  Other cosponsors include Senators Tillis (R-NC), Coons (D-DE), Moran (R-Kan.), Feinstein (D-Cal.), Flake (R-AZ.), Blumenthal (D-CT), Franken (D-MN), and Klobuchar (D-MN).