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Federal Compromise on Criminal Justice Reform Bill Announced in Senate

| October 1, 2015

On October 1, a collection of senators announced that an agreement had been reached on the CORRECTIONS Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act, both bipartisan criminal justice reform bills that had both already been filed in the U.S. Senate. Concerns had been raised about the bills in their previous form by Iowa’s Senator, Chuck Grassley, Chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Fortunately, today the senators involved have reached a compromise and have formed one bill.

As justice reform proposals have swept across red and blue states alike in recent years, coalitions began forming among federal legislators in order to move the needle in the federal system as well. Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, sponsored the CORRECTIONS Act. It involved numerous back-end reforms to the criminal justice system to ensure that when offenders were released, they would become contributing members of the community instead of a threat. It involved greater community involvement, investing further in evidence-based practices, and incentive-based “good time credits”.

The Smarter Sentencing Act was cosponsored by Senators Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois. This bill focused primarily on front-end reforms. Particularly, the bill examined mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Chairman Grassley was hesitant about the reforms proposed for mandatory minimums, which led to the discussions and compromise that brought about the bill presented today.

This bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, combines these two bills and seeks to safely and securely lower incarceration rates in the federal system. Many of the senators spoke this morning as they made the announcement, and the main theme was genuine desire to find common ground among the parties to address the very serious issue of incarceration and the struggles in the criminal justice system, following the states’ example.

Another bill that was subsumed in the new bill was the Mercy Act, a bill by Senator Cory Booker that addressed conditions for juveniles in prisons. In particular, the added portions from this bill will largely quell the practice of solitary confinement among juvenile offenders, except in the case of an emergency.

This new bill is strong evidence that there is real life in the criminal justice reform movement. As coalitions form, it becomes more likely that the U.S. may turn its incarceration rates around permanently, while preserving and even increasing the public’s safety.

For the text of the bill, click here.


DIANNA MULDROW is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, where she focused on criminal justice and education policy. She has interned in the Governor’s Office, for the Chair of the State Board of Education, and most recently at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Education Freedom and Center for Effective Justice. She is now employed as a policy analyst for Right on Crime, focusing on juvenile justice. Muldrow has worked on many research papers and articles – for Texas and several other states – advocating for reforms in criminal justice that protect public safety in a cost-effective manner.