New Agenda Outlines Ways Congress, Administration Can Act on Criminal Justice Reform

For Immediate Release

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Rebecca Autrey, rebecca.autrey@nyu.edu, 646-292-8316

New Agenda Outlines Ways Congress, Administration Can Act on Criminal Justice Reform

Archaic Policies of Attorney General Should Not Derail Years of Bipartisan Progress

WASHINGTON - Bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform has been building for years, and a new pro-active agenda by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law offers solutions that would keep crime rates low, provide support for law enforcement, and reduce the federal prison population.

A Federal Agenda to Reduce Mass Incarceration presents four pieces of legislation and three executive actions that supporters of criminal justice reform — from all political backgrounds — can unite behind.  It offers a bold plan for progress in the face of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive Friday, which reinstated outdated federal charging policies that contributed to mass incarceration in America.

“Too much progress has been made in recent years for supporters of reform to take their foot off the gas now,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “It won’t be easy, especially with Sessions as the nation’s top cop, but he increasingly stands alone. Members of his own party and America’s law enforcement officers are pushing for change.”   

“There might be more opportunities for progress under this new administration than you’d think from Sessions’ actions,” said Ames Grawert, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Vice President Pence and the president’s senior advisor Jared Kushner have supported reform policies in the past. In confusing and chaotic times, this can be one issue where people from all sides can come together.”

The agenda suggests legislation to:

  • End the Federal Subsidization of Mass Incarceration: Today, $8.4 billion in federal criminal justice grants flow from Washington annually, largely on autopilot, encouraging more arrests, prosecution, and incarceration. Instead, Congress can pass a “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act” that would dedicate $20 billion over 10 years to states that reduce both crime and incarceration.
  • End Federal Incarceration for Lower-Level Crimes: Congress can pass legislation to eliminate prison terms for lower-level offenses and shorten prison terms for other crimes. In doing so, it can safely and significantly cut the prison population, saving around $28 billion over 10 years, enough to fund a Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.
  • Institute a Police Corps Program to Modernize Law Enforcement: To advance a twenty-first century police force, Congress can create a program to recruit and train new officers in modern policing tactics focused on crime prevention, reducing unnecessary arrests and use of force, and increasing community engagement.
  • Enact Sentencing Reform: Congress can reintroduce and pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. This proposal would cautiously reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent crimes. The White House may support this legislation.

The agenda suggests executive actions that would:

  • Redirect Federal Grants Away from Mass Incarceration: The Justice Department can change performance measures for grants to reward states that use federal funds to reduce both crime and incarceration.
  • Institute New Goals for Federal Prosecutors: The Justice Department should ensure that resources are focused on the most serious crimes, and evaluate U.S. Attorneys nationally based on their ability to decrease both crime and incarceration.
  • Commute Sentences to Retroactively Apply the Fair Sentencing Act: In 2010, Republicans and Democrats joined together to pass legislation to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine crimes. Future presidents can bring justice to the 4,000 prisoners still incarcerated under this outdated drug law, by identifying clemency petitions meeting certain criteria, fast-tracking them for review, and granting clemency.  
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The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. Our work ranges from voting rights to redistricting reform, from access to the courts to presidential power in the fight against terrorism.

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