Criminal Justice Reform

This proposal would help non-violent, low-risk offenders reenter society while upholding our primary responsibility: the public safety.

In the field of criminal justice, two big challenges stand out: unduly long sentences for non-violent drug offenders and high rates of recidivism. A lengthy prison sentence is often the appropriate punishment for a serious crime. But rigid and excessive mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders may add to an already overcrowded prison system without appreciably strengthening public safety. In addition, they can further sever familial bonds and make re-entry into society that much harder.

  • Smarter Sentencing: Introduced by Senator Mike Lee and Senator Dick Durbin, the Smarter Sentencing Act, would reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders from 20 years to ten years, ten years to five years, and five years to two years, while leaving maximum sentences unchanged. It would modestly expand the existing federal sentencing safety valve. And it would allow individuals sentenced under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act to petition for a new sentence under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. (A House companion was introduced by Representatives Raul Labrador and Bobby Scott).

High rates of recidivism, meanwhile, are not only costly and dangerous; they are a missed opportunity to help people lead happy, productive lives.

  • Lower Recidivism: Introduced by Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Bobby Scott, The Public Safety Enhancement Act would fight high recidivism. Under this legislation, federal prisons would have to create an assessment tool to classify all inmates according to their risk of recidivism—low, medium, or high—with periodic reassessments. By linking inmates with rehabilitative programs that fit their needs and risk level, we can reduce the probability that they will re-offend. The legislation would create a tiered incentive structure in which inmates, by lowering their risk level, could earn privileges, such as phone time with family as well as time in pre-release custody—such as home confinement, a halfway house, ankle monitoring, etc.—instead of imprisonment through “earned time credits.” Prisoners who have committed violent crimes would not be eligible for the time credits.

This proposal puts a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration. Although the federal government’s reach is limited, these reforms would give judges the discretion they need to prevent non-violent offenders from serving unreasonably long sentences; they would align inmates’ incentives to help reduce recidivism; and they would partner with states and community groups to expand their life-affirming work. 

Criminal justice is a very complex issue, and Washington doesn’t have all the answers. This proposal is not meant to serve as the final word, but to start a conversation all across the country. Anyone with questions or comments about this proposal can contact the committee at ExpandingOpportunity@mail.house.gov.

By opening up the debate, we hope to help the best ideas prevail and to empower our communities to expand opportunity in America.