Legislative Update on Criminal Justice

Sentencing Reform

As part of a growing tough-on-crime attitude in the 1980s, legislators at the state and federal levels passed a myriad of new laws imposing harsh mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of crimes, most notably for nonviolent drug offenses. In the following decades, the incarcerated population exploded, reaching over two million people by the 21st century. Today, the United States has the largest imprisoned population in the world, both by total number and by percentage.

Over-criminalization and mass incarceration have overwhelmingly affected people of color. Black men are disproportionately likely to be arrested, tried, and incarcerated for drug crimes, despite the fact that they are no more likely to use or sell illicit drugs than white men. One in every three black males born today is expected to serve time in prison during his lifetime. Latinas/os have also suffered under a criminal justice system with deep racial bias.

In recent years, growing recognition of the massive human and economic costs of mass incarceration has caused a bipartisan coalition to coalesce around sentencing reform. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the racially-biased sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1.

During the 114th Congress, several bills were introduced to further reform the criminal justice system. Senators Grassley, Leahy, Schumer, Lee, Cornyn, Booker, Whitehouse, Scott, Graham and Durbin have introduced the comprehensive, bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123). This bill would have reduced mandatory minimums for a variety of nonviolent drug offenses, reformed certain juvenile justice practices, given judges greater discretion in setting sentences and allowed prisoners to reduce their time in prison through good behavior and participation in anti-recidivism programs. Many of the provisions in the bill were retroactive. In the House, Representatives Goodlatte and Cornyn introduced the Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713), which contained similar mandatory minimum reductions but didnot include the prison reform and juvenile justice provisions of the Senate bill. Both bills were successfully voted out of committee but did not receive a floor vote.

For decades, the Union for Reform Judaism has opposed mandatory minimums for first-time drug offenders and called for rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration.


Juvenile Justice

In the past, juveniles were routinely housed in adult prisons, and as a result, were often subject to assault, including rape, by both inmates and prison staff members. In 1974, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) to begin to regularize and improve juvenile justice procedures. The JJDPA remains the most important measure protecting the rights of juvenile offenders in our criminal justice system. Under the law, states are required, as a condition to receive federal funds, to maintain four core protections for minors:

  • Deinstitutionalization of Status Offender
  • Sight and Sound Separation
  • Jail Removal
  • Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC)

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was last reauthorized in 2002. During the 114th Congress, the bipartisan Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (S. 1169) was introduced in the Senate by Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Whitehouse (D-RI). In the House, Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Youth Justice Act of 2015 (H.R. 2728). These bills would reauthorize and update the JJDPA, adding new provisions designed to protect juvenile offenders and increase accountability.

The Union for Reform Judaism is a member of Act 4 Juvenile Justice (Act4JJ) and the National Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Coalition, the coalition that works on JJDPA reauthorization and improvement (Women of Reform Judaism is also a member of Act4JJ).


Solitary Confinement

At both the state and federal levels, solitary confinement is a common practice in the prison system - some estimates put the population currently held in some form of solitary confinement at around 80,000 people. Contrary to popular belief, solitary confinement is not reserved exclusively for prisoners who pose an excessive danger to themselves or others. In fact, solitary is often used as punishment for minor rule violations or as “involuntary protective custody” for suspected gang members, LGBT people and the mentally ill. Often prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day, with one hour allowed for exercise or bathing (generally also without social interaction). The short- and long-term physical and psychological trauma inflicted by solitary confinement is well documented.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), introduced by Senators Grassley, Cornyn, Leahy, Booker, Schumer, Graham, Whitehouse, Lee, Scott and Durbin in thee 114th Congress, contained a provision that would impose limitations on the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons.


Felon Disenfranchisement

In the United States, an estimated 5.85 million adult citizens are currently disenfranchised (denied the right to vote) as a result of felony conviction. 75% of these individuals are currently out of prison and are living under probation or parole supervision or in states where voting rights are not restored after incarceration. While Maine and Vermont place no restrictions on voting for felons and 13 states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights after an individual is released from prison, 35 states restrict voting rights at least temporarily for people no longer in prison. 

The Democracy Restoration Act (H.R. 1459/S. 772) would ensure that probationers never lose their right to vote in federal elections and would notify individuals of their right to vote in federal elections when they are leaving prison, sentenced to probation or convicted of a misdemeanor.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis has expressed support for the rights of felons to vote. The right to vote is a cornerstone of American democracy, and thus the democratic system is the strongest and most vibrant when the base of voter participation is the widest. Individuals convicted of felonies should not be stripped of the fundamental right to vote, particularly when the criminal justice system operates in such a way so as to disproportionately target the poor and people of color.


Related Issues

Racial Justice and Hate Crimes

For information on racial justice, please see the Civil Rights issue page. For information on hate crimes, please see the Hate Crimes issue page.

Death Penalty and Innocence

For information on the death penalty and innocence issues, please see the position of the Reform Movement on the death penalty.

Due Process for Non-Citizens and Anti-Terrorism Legislation

For information on due process issues in the immigration system and anti-terrorism legislation, please see the Civil Liberties issue page.

Drug Policy

For information on drug policy, please see the Substance Abuse issue page.