Sensible, Evidence-Based, State-Tested Reform for the Federal Criminal Justice System

By Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-3) on Criminal Justice Reform

An Excerpt From the Upcoming 2017 National Bar Association Civil Rights Law Section Newsletter – Part I

Since 1980, Congress has steadily increased the size and scope of the federal criminal code and, with it, the federal prison population. In that period, the federal government has added an estimated 2,000 new crimes to the books and significantly expanded the use of mandatory minimum sentences, while the federal imprisonment rate has grown by an astounding 518 percent. During the same period, annual spending on the federal prison system rose six-fold, after adjusting for inflation.

Similar to the federal government, states also recorded sharp increases in imprisonment and associated costs. The prison explosion results from years of our policy of codifying slogans and sound bites. But slogans and sound bites do nothing to decrease crime, and, when studied, some slogans have been shown to actually increase the crime rate. During the past decade, however, the states have responded by reducing their imprisonment rate by 4 percent while the federal imprisonment rate jumped 15 percent. More than 30 states have reduced both their crime and imprisonment rates by adopting wide-ranging, evidence-based reforms that protect public safety, while reining in prison costs. Their successful formula focuses expensive prison space on violent and career criminals, while strengthening community supervision and alternative sanctions for lower-level offenders.

Considering the successes at the state level, Congress must implement similar reforms at the national level. That is why I will be reintroducing the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, which is bipartisan legislation that puts state-learned lessons to work at the federal level. The SAFE Justice Act focuses on evidence-based sentencing alternatives; expands eligibility for pre-judgment probation; promotes greater use of probation for lower-level offenders; and encourages courts to open drug, veteran, mental health and other problem-solving courts.

Research also shows that draconian mandatory minimum sentences for the vast majority of mid and low-level drug offenders have little impact on public safety. The SAFE Justice Act eliminates the application of these mandatory minimum sentences and recidivist enhancements for all except truly high-level drug kingpins; allows life sentences for drug trafficking only in the most egregious cases; expands the safety valve; and clarifies that mandatory-minimum gun sentences only run consecutively when the offender is a true recidivist.

The SAFE Justice Act reduces recidivism by encouraging more inmates to participate in individualized case plans designed to reduce their likelihood of reoffending; seeks to boost success rates of offenders on probation and post-prison supervision; and creates mental health and de-escalation training programs for prison personnel.

Finally, the SAFE Justice Act reinvests any savings that result from sentencing reforms into prevention and early intervention programs, problem-solving courts and other alternatives to incarceration, and body cameras and comprehensive police training, including de-escalation tactics and identifying implicit bias.



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