Senate Judiciary Hearing Outlines the Need for Justice Reform

This afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S. 2123, a modest bill that will expand the existing "safety valve" exception to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders and direct the Federal Bureau of Prisons to implement rehabilitative programs designed to reduce recidivism, or repeat offenses. The hearing came in advance of a mark up on the bill scheduled for Thursday morning.

The bill was introduced earlier this month by a bipartisan group of senators, including Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Though the word "bipartisan" may immediately scare some conservatives, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is not splitting the difference on someone’s bad idea. It is grounded in fiscally conservative principles and promotes public safety. The approach the bill brings is similar to that taken in conservative states like Texas and Georgia, which is outlined a FreedomWorks publication, Federalism in Action: How Conservative States Got Smart on Crime. States that have taken a new and innovative approach to corrections have seen their incarcerations rates drop, while their crime rates fell.

During the hearing, Lee, a former federal prosecutor, eloquently made the conservative case for justice reform through the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

"Since my time as a prosecutor, I have been concerned by the excesses of our federal criminal justice system. That’s why, more than two years ago now, Senator Durbin and I first introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act. We had seen welcome reductions in our crime rate, and we wanted to couple that progress with reforms that would make sentencing more fair and efficient without reducing public safety," said Lee. "The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act achieves that goal."

"Our criminal justice system has to be pliable 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. 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," he added.

Though some are already trying to fan the flames of fear to slow the momentum for legislation like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, as recently explained by conservative leaders, including FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon, justice reform is a conservative cause. In addition lowering crime rates, states have seen tremendous cost savings. Texas has saved $3 billion in planned prison construction costs since 2007 and actually closed three prisons as a result of its reforms while Georgia has averted $264 million in similar costs since 2011.

For those who are trying to slow the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Chairman Grassley, who has a reputation as a "tough on crime" lawmaker, had some harsh words.

"Now the bill has been nearly unanimously praised, but there is some opposition out there. The bill is unpopular with some federal prosecutors. And I might even agree with some of their criticisms," he said. "I also understand some organizations are calling for more hearings and a delay in the markup of the bill. This is just a thinly veiled attempt to kill the bill. They know we don’t have a lot of time if we are going to get this done. We have had hearings on this subject over the years. And none of these groups were active when I was out there, almost alone, fighting off other bills that would have gone too far in reducing mandatory minimum sentences."

Despite the criticism of the bill, crime rates are at their lowest point in decades, but this is not a product of the over-reliance on incarceration. In fact, incarceration played a very limited role in the decline in crime rates, according to recent research conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice. But between 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population has grown by nearly 800 percent, and annual appropriations to the Federal Bureau of Prisons have grown from nearly $849 million in 1980 inflation-adjusted dollars to $6.859 billion in 2014, a 707 percent increase. This one federal agency now consumes a quarter of all appropriations to the Department of Justice.

The Congressional Research Service offered some ideas on how federal lawmakers could address the growth in the federal prison population and related costs. "Congress could also consider ways to reduce the number of inmates held in federal prison by considering alternatives to incarceration," a March 2014 report explained, "such as increasing good time credit for inmates who participate in certain rehabilitative programs, placing more low-level offenders on community supervision in lieu of incarceration, or reducing mandatory minimum penalties for some offenses."

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act brings many of these reforms to the federal corrections system. The bill was a product of months of negotiations led by Chairman Grassley and several other Senate Judiciary Committee members. The bill is not a strong as the Smarter Sentencing Act, for which FreedomWorks issued a letter of support, but it does address make address costly the mandatory minimum sentences that have contributed to the rise of the federal prison population and exacerbated existing problems in many communities. It also addresses the juvenile justice system by limiting the use of solitary confinement in the federal corrections system and allowing young people to have their records expunged, which is similar to the REDEEM Act, another FreedomWorks-supported bill.

While FreedomWorks does not have a formal position on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, it contains several provisions that are worthy of consideration. As we have stated all along, justice reform must come with cost savings. It could be that those savings may take some time to be realized and they may be reinvested into rehabilitative programs or public safety, as states have similarly done, but we remain hopeful that this bill will achieve this goal.