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March 7, 2014

Senate Judiciary Committee approves Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act

Yesterday the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act.  This press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "FAMM Hails Continued Bipartisan Support for Criminal Justice Reforms," provides this information about the bill contents and context:

The bipartisan bill, a compromise negotiated by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX), is anticipated to help alleviate overcrowding in federal prisons — now at 138 percent of their capacity — and may help reduce federal prison costs, which consume a full quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget and threaten funding for other law enforcement programs.  Among other things, the legislation passed today:

  • requires the federal Bureau of Prisons to classify all federal prisoners as being at high, moderate, or low risk of reoffending;

  • permits many prisoners to earn time credits for completing recidivism-reducing programs or “productive activities” like maintaining a prison job; and

  • allows low and moderate risk prisoners who earn a certain number of time credits to be released from prison early to serve the remainders of their sentences on prerelease custody in a halfway house, on home confinement, or under community supervision.

This article from Main Justice, headlined "DOJ Spends Too Much on Prisons, Leahy Says," reports than 15 Senators voted in support of this bill and that the only GOP member to vote against the bill was Senator Jeff Sessions.

For a variety of reasons, I expect bills to reform severe sentencing laws like the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act will continue to get a lot more attention than this Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. But, for a variety of reasons, I think this bill, which may have the broadest support among the most important political players in Congress, could end up being the most important and consequential for helping to transform the nature and future of the federal sentencing system.

March 7, 2014 at 09:30 AM | Permalink


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From the description, this bill seems to be a step backward from truth in sentencing system to one in which good time credits and parole (or in this case) quasi-parole transform the sentence imposed into a fraudulent fiction that greatly exaggerates the actual time served.

While current sentences might be too high, everyone benefits from a system in which there is a clear and factually accurate connection between the sentence imposed and the time served. The old system (which too many states still have) allows the politicians in the legislative branch to have their cake (voting for laws with high sentences) and eat it too by avoiding the fiscal consequences of actually following through on those sentences. At the same time, it makes the line prosecutors and defense attorneys have to play a guessing game with victims and the defendants as to what a sentence really means (often leading to extended collateral review litigation in which the accuracy of those guesses is a major issue).

Posted by: tmm | Mar 7, 2014 12:55:59 PM

The bill appears to differ slightly from the house version. This version appears to make th reductions discretionary to the BOP. The house bill seems to specify that the reductions are quantitative to the individual's recidivism measurement (15, 30, 60 days a year for each recidivist level). There are other criminals excluded in th house version based on statutes violated by the person incarcerated (sex assault, terrorists, etc are exempt). I think I like the senate version better, because its better to get everyone involved in the programs to help reduce recidivism. I just don't like the discretion granted the BOP to award the reductions.

This is obviously a bill that looked at the overcrowding in federal prisons and knew they had to do something before the Supreme Court came down on them like they did on California.

Posted by: Skeptical | Mar 7, 2014 5:39:24 PM

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