A Significant Step Forward on the Road to Reform

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A Significant Step Forward on the Road to Reform

A bipartisan group of legislators have come together to take action on criminal justice reform. Will they secure the votes to pass it?

Even if the legislation could have been stronger, the bill is "the most substantial criminal justice reform legislation introduced since the inception of the 'tough on crime' movement, and is the best indication we have that those days are over." (Photo: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Weldon Angelos is a young father who wouldn’t have been able to be in his two children’s lives until he was 80 and his children were old and grey themselves. Angelos made mistakes and sold  some marijuana.  Because he also happened to have a gun in his possession, he got a 55 year mandatory minimum sentence. At a Senate press conference today, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah stood alongside six of his Senate colleagues to roll out a monumental criminal justice reform bill. Senator Lee, who worked on this 2004 case, reported that the judge knew it was an unjust sentence, but lamented that he couldn’t do anything about it…only Congress could.

And  today, Congress is.  The Senate Judiciary Committee started rolling that ball toward a fairer criminal justice system.

“The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” Democratic  Senator Patrick Leahy cited the recent call from the Pope to Congress to heed the Golden rule as he and his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

As New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, a co-author of this bill, pointed out, “More African-Americans today are incarcerated than all those enslaved in 1850.” Booker was instrumental in many of the provisions of the bill that ameliorate some of the worst aspects of our criminal justice system—those affecting our nation’s children in federal custody.

Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project says this is the is “the most substantial criminal justice reform legislation introduced since the inception of the ‘tough on crime’ movement, and is the best indication we have that those days are over.”

Highlights of the bill include:

  • Reducing and retroactively reducing unfairly long sentences for non-violent for drug offenses
  • Increasing anti-recidivism programs
  • Reducing sentences for incarcerated people who participate in rehabilitation programs
  • Limiting the use of solitary confinement for young people incarcerated in federal facilities
  • Expanding sealing and expungement criteria for some juvenile offenses
  • Providing the possibility of parole for some offenses committed while a juvenile
  • Providing for the compassionate release of elderly prisoners

This legislation could have been stronger, it could have eliminated unfair mandatory minimums altogether. It could have done more to reduce “collateral consequences” that present almost insurmountable barriers to citizens returning to their communities after incarceration; it could have provided for expungement of records of formerly incarcerated adults after three years of successful reentry. It could have done much more. And so there is much more work to be done.

But for a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators to come together and do what they were elected to do is a big deal. And this legislation is a big deal, too.  The prospects in the Senate are uncharacteristically bright for passage given that the House is hardly prone to bipartisanship or compromise.  In the words of Senator Dick Durbin, “What’s going to happen in the House? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

But for the sake of Weldon Angelos’ children and thousands of others, still young enough to need their father present in their lives, GOP-controlled House of Representatives should do its job and allow their dads and moms to come home.

Karen Dolan

Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and directs the Criminalization of Poverty project there. She is author of "The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty." Follow her on Twitter: @karendolan

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