Skip to main content

Broad Coalition Calls for Serious Criminal Justice Reforms in Congress [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #874)
Politics & Advocacy

(This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.)

The current Congress is already seeing a flurry of bills aimed at reforming various aspects of the federal criminal justice system, and now, a broad coalition of faith, criminal justice reform, and civil and human rights groups is calling for the passage of legislation that will dramatically reduce the size of the federal prison system.

The groups, which include the United Methodist Church, the NAACP, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the Drug Policy Alliance, and dozens of other organizations, last week sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees setting out a statement of principles on what meaningful federal-level criminal justice reform should include.

"We urge you to support and advance criminal justice legislative reforms aimed at meaningfully addressing the primary drivers of dangerous overcrowding, unsustainable costs, and unwarranted racial disparities in the federal prison system," the letter said.

The letter called for Congress to:

  • restore proportionality to drug sentencing;
  • promote and adequately fund recidivism reduction and reentry programming;
  • make sentencing reductions retroactive;
  • expand BOP's Compassionate Release Program; and
  • expand time credits for good behavior.

The federal prison population has expanded nearly ten-fold since the launch of the Reagan-era war on drugs three decades ago. In 1980, there were 22,000 federal prisoners; now, there are 210,000. And the war on drugs is one of the largest drivers of the increase. The number of federal drug prisoners has risen at twice the rate of the overall federal prison population; from fewer than 5,000 in 1980 to just under 100,000 now.

Last year, the federal prison population declined for the first time in 34 years, thanks in part to already enacted sentencing reforms, but the decline is marginal. More substantive reforms will be required to make bigger reductions in the carceral state.

The call comes as the Obama administration and members of both parties have all shown increasing signs of willingness to take on the federal criminal justice behemoth. Attorney General Holder has called repeatedly for a rollback of mandatory minimum sentencing and other harsh sentencing policies, while even House and Senate Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Reps. Jason Chafetz (R-UT) and Raul Labrador (R-ID) are sponsoring reform bills.

That Republican openness to sentencing reforms even extends to grumpy hard-liners like Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the octogenarian chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I've expressed in the committee, maybe even on the floor, concern about inequitable sentencing," he said earlier this year. "White-collar crime has been treated less harshly than blue-collar crime, and it seems to me there's an opportunity maybe to take care of that inequity."

"It's encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats engaged in seeking constructive solutions to excessive incarceration," said Jeremy Haile, Federal Advocacy Counsel at The Sentencing Project. "To reduce federal prison populations and racial disparities, Congress should take an all-of-the-above approach, addressing excessive sentencing, limitations on programming in federal prisons, and barriers that prevent successful reentry."

"It's clear that there is a path forward for criminal justice reform in the House and Senate, but lawmakers should ensure that any final bill gets at the root causes of mass incarceration," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager at Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "It's important that legislation doesn't just paper over the cracks."

Maybe there is something after all where Democrats and Republicans can work together. We shall see as the year progresses.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Oh, heck, I just looked at the subject line & jumped right here to comment. I don't care if it's related to drug policy or not, but the whole idea & practice of criminal law drives me batty. If anyone were ever to start from scratch to work on whatever problems criminal law is supposed to address, they'd never come up with anything close to what they have in the USA or probably any advanced country. It's been centuries, maybe millennia, of patches on previous problems, where each patch sort-of made sense given the apparent options at the time, but the final result is a mind-boggling mess. In discussions of criminal law, I'm always asking questions that seem terribly naive to most other people, but that's just because they rely on assumptions concerning things that've been in place a loooong time. Even the symbolism is nuts. Cases are labeled as "the people" vs. So-&-So. But So-&-So's one of the people too, so it's someone against hirself? Many organiz'ns have rules for what's to be done regarding transgressions by their members, and none of them come close, except occasionally, to criminal law. That's because they all had the opp'ty to work from scratch & formulate procedures & substantive outcomes that make sense for the organiz'n. And people disagree on what the product (outcome) of criminal law should be, even assuming it is produced correctly. Yet they usually ignore those disagreements, because they're too daunting to confront directly. So they pretend all the products are to some degree or other desiderata, just to a greater or lesser degree, and then advocate "reform" without acknowledging that improving the product they're interested in may well degrade the product someone else is interested in.
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 2:08pm Permalink
the virgin terry (not verified)

maybe i'm crazy, but it seems to me that the popularity of 'conservative' interpretations of biblical christianity, a religion that posits a god that's dogmatic, puritanical, judgemental, and punitive as hell (literally), and that all humans are 'sinners' who deserve to be judged and punished so harshly... i think this has much to do with amerika's love affair with being 'tough on crime' and incarceration. lose that stinking religion and maybe, just maybe, amerikan society would become a lot more reasonable and compassionate.

Fri, 02/20/2015 - 2:20am Permalink
Paul Duggan (not verified)

To see the effect on parents, siblings, spouses, children, etc. of folks incarcerated is heart breaking (let alone these non-violent defendants). One can not believe its a coincidence that while the 1% have gotten enormously wealthier since 1980, the rest of us have, to a large degree, occupied ourselves by running around incarcerating each other. We are pro union, but when the corrections officers' union argues strenuously against drug reform, you just shake your head.

Fri, 02/20/2015 - 11:51am Permalink

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.