March 17 – Federal Sentencing Reform Gains Steam

Despite our skepticism – some might call it cynicism – about the likelihood that Congress will act to reform the Federal sentencing system, the issue seems to be gaining steam in the Senate.

speech_maker_rightThe Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) picked up two more co-sponsors last Friday, Sen. John “Johnny” Isakson (Republican from Georgia), and Senator Timothy Kaine (Democrat from Virginia).   The bill now has 16 co-sponsors, 10 Democrats, 5 Republicans and one independent.  Traditionally, this kind of bi-partisan support for a bill is a good thing, increasing the likelihood that the bill will be passed.

The companions bill to S. 1410 – H.R. 3382 – is still in committee in the House of Representatives, but it has 20 co-sponsors, and gives the measure a 60 percent chance of getting out of committee and a 45% chance of passage.  Govtrack is notoriously stingy in its assessments of a bill’s chance of passage, making this number pretty heartening.  By comparison, Govtrack gives S. 1410 a 57 percent chance of passage, a major increase from moths ago, when its chances were still in the single digits.speech_maker_left

Finally, a lengthy New York Times piece last Thursday and an op-ed opinion piece today cover the legislative push on sentencing.  The Thursday story reported on the factors driving Republican support for sentencing reform:

“[L]eading Republicans are saying that mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system have failed — too costly, overly punitive and ineffective. So they are embracing a range of ideas from Republican-controlled states that have reduced prison populations and brought down the cost of incarceration.

“The shift turns upside down the “war on crime” ethos on the right, and even among some on the left, an approach that has dominated the policy of punishment for more than two decades.

“Religious conservatives see these efforts as offering compassion and the hope of reuniting broken families. Fiscal conservatives say the proposals would shave billions off the federal budget. The combination has made closing prisons and releasing inmates who no longer appear to pose a threat new articles of faith among politicians who would have rejected them out of hand only a few years ago….

“The changes represent a rare example of both parties agreeing in a major area of domestic policy. The Obama administration is engaged and supportive of the efforts in Congress, as was evident on Thursday when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. endorsed a proposal that would reduce prison sentences for people convicted of dealing drugs, the latest sign that the White House is making criminal justice a priority of President Obama’s second term.”

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