Backed by Conservatives, Criminal Justice Reform Likely to Prevail in 2014

by Lauren Galik:

Recently, there’s been a breakthrough for federal criminal justice reform. In 2013, liberal and conservative leaders came together on the federal level to support major changes to federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws in what was an unusual display of congressional bipartisanship.

Jail Cell On the state level, the push for criminal justice reform has come largely from conservatives who have realized that their decades long tough-on-crime stances haven’t produced the type of results they were hoping for, and instead have had devastating consequences on their communities.

Even at this year’s CPAC there was a large presence of groups and individuals interested in conservative criminal justice reform, such as Right on Crime and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. At one point, there was even a well-attended panel discussion on criminal justice reform on the main stage featuring the likes of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Grover Norquist, and former NYC Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik – all of whom expressed the need for reform.

This growing consensus among conservatives and liberals is likely to translate into some type of major reform at the federal level later this year.

Several criminal justice reform bills were introduced to the Senate and the House last year, and will be formally considered by Congress in the coming months. Here’s a summary of two bills that are projected to have the most impact if passed in 2014:

The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410/H.R. 3382) 

The Smarter Sentencing Act was introduced to the Senate by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). An identical version was also introduced in the House. In January of this year, the U.S. Senate Judiciary voted to pass the bill. Next, the U.S. Senate must consider and vote on the bill, and the same process must be repeated in the House in order for the bill to become law.

This bill proposes to make the most radical reforms to federal sentencing laws since the Fair Sentencing Act was past in 2010. If the bill becomes law, it would do three things:

1. Reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses:

If enacted, this bill would cut mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes in half: mandatory minimum sentences of five-, 10- and 20-years would be reduced to two-, five-, and 10-year terms.

A report by the Urban Institute estimates that in 10 years, the reduction of mandatory minimum drug sentences alone could save US taxpayers roughly $2.5 billion and reduce prison crowding to 20 percent above capacity (down from the current 55 percent above capacity). Moreover, this could potentially impact more than 15,000 people per year.

2. Expand the drug safety valve:

The current federal drug safety valve may only be applied to offenders who have no more than one criminal history point. If enacted, this bill would allow the federal drug safety valve to apply to those who have a more extensive criminal history, or those who have a maximum of three criminal history points.

The Urban Institute found that expanding the drug safety valve has the potential to save approximately $544 million over the next 10 years, and impact more than 2,000 people annually.

3. Make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) retroactive:

When signed into law in 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity between the amount of powder and crack cocaine needed to trigger five- and ten-year federal mandatory minimum sentences, from a 100:1 to an 18:1 weight ratio. The law also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.

However, the law was not retroactive. Meaning, those sentenced under the old law were not eligible for re-sentencing or release.

If this bill were passed, offenders sentenced under the old law would be able to make a motion to the court requesting the application of the FSA to their cases, which could result in the release thousands of offenders. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, roughly 8,800 federal inmates are serving time for crack offenses committed before the FSA was enacted.

The Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619/H.R. 1695)

The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 was introduced in the Senate by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY). An identical version of the bill was introduced in House by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY).

If passed, the bill would create a new, broader safety valve measure for federal mandatory minimum sentences, which would allow judges to sentence offenders below a mandatory minimum if, according to their judgment, the sentence would not fulfill the goals of punishment listed here. This would allow judges to prevent low-level drug couriers from getting the same sentence as a drug kingpin, for example.

This safety valve would be applicable to all federal crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

This bill has the potential to produce significant savings, and affect thousands of offenders. The Urban Institute found that a safety valve for all federal crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences could save as much as $835 million over the next 10 years.

By signing these bills into law in 2014, the United States would be taking huge step forward in scaling back the draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have pervaded the federal criminal justice system for more than 30 years. Moreover, it would show the American public that both parties are still capable of working together to achieve meaningful results.

Conservative support for reform is already there, as CPAC clearly demonstrated. And these bipartisan sentencing reform measures have also been endorsed by President Obama.

Let’s hope that this wide-ranging support translates into real change in 2014. At this point, there’s little opposition left.


Lauren Galik is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, where she focuses on sentencing reform and other criminal justice issues. She joined Reason in 2013, having previously interned at the Cato Institute. Lauren graduated from The Ohio State University in June 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and International Relations.


  1. All nice until one of those criminals with 3 prior convictions kills someone. This is pure foolishness. Crime goes down when criminals spend long sentences in prison.

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