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The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.2123), Explained

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.2123), Explained

Next Tuesday, January 19, Reform Jews will join together to call on the Senate to bring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), also known as SRCA, forward for a floor vote. You can register to join us as we demand this important step in tackling mass incarceration.

S. 2123 is a bipartisan bill that would make sentence reductions possible for nonviolent drug offenders currently serving long sentences in federal prisons under harsh mandatory minimum laws.

But what exactly would this legislation do to reform our broken criminal justice system?

SRCA is divided into two Titles. Title I deals with sentencing reform, while Title II implements juvenile justice and prison reforms. Initially conceived as separate bills, these titles were brought together to create a comprehensive reform package that could attain broad support.

Title I contains several major provisions to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and to restore judicial discretion in sentencing. Among the most important are:

  • The federal three-strike mandatory minimum penalty for drug felonies is reduced from life imprisonment to 25 years, and the 20-year mandatory minimum for a second drug felony is reduced to 15 years.
  • The existing “safety valve” by which judges can circumvent the mandatory minimum law to give a shorter sentence is expanded to include more people. A new safety valve is also created to allow low-level drug users and traffickers to be given a 5-year mandatory minimum rather than the standard 10-year.
  • The above provisions are made retroactive. Eligible prisoners must petition the court for individual reviews of their cases to determine whether they receive the sentence reduction.
  • The provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, are made retroactive.

Title II makes meaningful reforms to the federal juvenile justice system by banning solitary confinement of juveniles, limiting life without parole sentences for juveniles and making it easier for former offenders to have their records sealed or expunged. Title II also sets up a system to allow prisoners who actively participate in anti-recidivism programs, including job training workshops and substance abuse support groups, to finish the last quarter of their sentences in halfway homes or in home confinement, rather than in prison.

As with any compromise legislation, there are areas in which S. 2123 could go farther to reduce mass incarceration. There are some provisions that are troublesome, including expansion of the applicability of mandatory minimum sentences to some individuals who previously would not have been eligible for such punishments. The bill also contains new mandatory minimum provisions for interstate domestic violence and certain arms export violations.

All told, however, SRCA presents the possibility of making a real and meaningful impact on the bloated U.S. federal prison population. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, thousands of currently incarcerated, low-level offenders could see their sentences reduced. The passage of sentencing reform legislation at the federal level will also carry important symbolic value as evidence of the efficacy of smart-on-crime over tough-on-crime policies. This could drive even farther reaching reforms at the local, state and federal levels.

As Reform Jews, we value mercy, redemption and rehabilitation for those who commit wrongdoings, and we are deeply concerned about the ever-growing racial and class disparities in the criminal justice system. We must urge Congress to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act as an important remedy to the problem of mass incarceration, and as a much-needed first step toward truly comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system.

Join us for our national call-in day to pass S. 2123 on Tuesday, January 19.

Adam Waters is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He grew up in Coral Springs, FL, and was a member of Temple Beth Orr. Adam graduated from Brown University.

Adam Waters

Published: 1/15/2016