Federal legislators have been gridlocked for so many years that many Americans would say the phrase “do-nothing Congress” is redundant. Passing legislation now seems to be the exception rather than the rule, and any bills that do make it through often rely on a one-party majority rather than bipartisan support.
In light of this, a recently introduced Senate bill is especially noteworthy. According to news sources, key lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum have managed to agree on modest but much-needed reforms to criminal sentencing laws.
The most problematic sentencing laws are related to harsh penalties for non-violent drug offenders. Mandatory minimums and “three-strikes” laws have led to decades-long sentences – and sometimes life sentences – for individuals who have never been violent or posed a threat to the public. In many cases, judges were forced to issue these harsh sentences and were prevented from using their own discretion.
If passed, the sentencing reform bill would:
- Reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases
- Reduce life sentences down to 25 years for individuals convicted under three-strikes laws
- Apply retroactive changes that could make an estimated 6,500 prison inmates immediately eligible to petition for reduced sentences
In a New York Times editorial supporting the bill, the editors succinctly describe both the problem and what solutions this legislation would offer. They write: “These may seem like minor tweaks to pointlessly long sentences, and for the most part they are. But when half of all federal inmates are in for drug crimes, even small changes can make a real difference.”
Sentencing reform for non-violent crimes is beneficial for all parties involved. It saves taxpayers money; it reduces prison populations and it treats offenders with more compassion and dignity. Hopefully, federal legislators will continue to surprise Americans by actually doing the work they were elected to do.