Thank you for contacting me about reform of our criminal justice system and prisons. I appreciate hearing from you.
The United States, by far, has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Although we have just five percent of the world’s population, our country now houses twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. More than 2.2 million Americans are currently in prison, and another 4.6 million remain on probation or parole.
Our prison population has skyrocketed over the past two decades as we have incarcerated more non-violent, low-level drug offenders. The mass incarceration of illegal drug users, disproportionately from minority communities, has not curtailed drug usage. The multi-billion dollar illegal drug industry remains intact, with more dangerous drugs continuing to reach our streets. The unnecessary and ineffective mass incarceration of non-violent offenders is not only a human injustice, but also an economic drag. The costs of teeming jails and prisons to our federal, state and local governments continue to grow during a time of increasingly tight budgets. Dollars spent incarcerating non-violent offenders with unnecessarily long sentences could be better spent investigating and prosecuting the more serious, violent offenders who pose a real threat to our communities and investing in proven crime reduction strategies, like quality early-childhood education. It is time we rebalance our investments in the criminal justice system.
It is also time we focus more on rehabilitation with an eye toward reducing recidivism. Our current system does not focus enough on providing training and skills to prisoners to help them prepare for successful reentry. Empowering those released from prison to live productive lives is a commonsense way to reduce crime and boost our economy.
It is clear we as a Nation must address these issues if we are to have a justice system that is worthy of the name. That is why I am a proud cosponsor of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), which was introduced on October 4, 2017, by a bipartisan group of Senators led by Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Dick Durbin of Illinois. This legislation includes a far-reaching mix of significant sentencing and prison reforms.
With respect to sentencing, the bill would reduce certain mandatory minimum sentences, including making retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. It would create a legal pathway for current prisoners to petition courts for retroactive application of these reduced sentences, while also expanding judicial discretion in using the “safety valve,” which allows judges to go around mandatory minimums in certain circumstances. It is important to highlight that all retroactively applied sentencing changes would not automatically release anyone from prison. Prisoners would only be released after successfully petitioning a court or prosecutor to reduce their sentence based on an individualized review of the particulars of their case, including whether they pose a danger to the public and their behavior in prison.
With respect to prison reform, SRCA contains a number of provisions designed to reduce recidivism and prepare prisoners to reenter society. Specifically, the bill would require the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to make recidivism reduction programming available to all eligible prisoners and provide inmates incentives for completing such programming in the form of time credits off their sentence and the ability to serve a portion of their sentence in pre-release custody. To determine eligibility for these incentive programs, BOP would also be required to perform a risk assessment of all prisoners.
SRCA also contains several provisions related to juvenile justice. The bill would permit non-violent juveniles tried in federal court to have their criminal records sealed or expunged. For juveniles still in detention, I am pleased this bill includes a provision from a standalone piece of legislation I cosponsor called the MERCY Act, which would put restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. Solitary confinement has been shown to have a disproportionately damaging effect on young minds.
Like many of my colleagues and so many Americans, I am troubled by the high rate of incarceration in this country. We need to make smart criminal justice and correctional system reforms that aim to address this issue in a measured way, balancing public safety with strong commitments to justice and rehabilitation. No major legislation is perfect, but I believe SRCA successfully strikes that balance and represents a step forward for our justice system. On February 15, 2018, SRCA was approved by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, of which I am not a member, by a vote of 16-5. Should this bill be considered by the full Senate, please be assured I will keep your views in mind.
Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future about this or any other matter of importance to you.
For more information on this or other issues, I encourage you to visit my website, http://casey.senate.gov. I hope you will find this online office a comprehensive resource to stay up-to-date on my work in Washington, request assistance from my office or share with me your thoughts on the issues that matter most to you and to Pennsylvania.
United States Senator