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house Bill H.R. 2944

Can Criminal Justice Reforms Help Reduce the Size and Cost of Federal Prisons?

Argument in favor

By focusing on violent and career criminals, the reforms in this bill would limit the size and cost of the federal prison system — without undermining public safety. Overcriminalization is rampant across the country, alternatives to lengthy sentences are a concrete way to reduce prison populations.

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08/28/2015
"For people who have committed crimes that have landed them in jail, there needs to be a path back from prison. The federal system of parole needs to be reinstated. We need real education and real skills training for the incarcerated." [betterworld.net]
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BarackObama's Opinion
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08/28/2015
"I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it's normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It's not normal. It's not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things." [cnn.com]
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DonaldTrump's Opinion
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08/28/2015
“I have to say this, in terms of our cities and in terms of the violent offenses, we have to get tougher. The police are fantastic people and they have to be allowed to do their job... [but in terms of drugs and marijuana] there have to be changes. ” [msnbc.com]
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Argument opposed

Reforming the federal prison system by following states is shortsighted — plenty of states haven’t enacted any prison reforms of their own. Not to mention this bill's disregard for criminal behavior. Drug offenders and other "low level" offenders have still committed crimes and need to be punished.

ScottWalker's Opinion
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08/28/2015
“Years ago, I authored legislation that required certainty in sentencing so victims like the woman I met in Green Bay can know how long the man who attacked her will be behind bars — whether it is two or 20 years. As a victim, she deserves to be a part of that process and she deserves to have the peace of mind of knowing how long he will be in prison.” Read more at https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/get-people-ready-work
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Ryan's Opinion
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07/31/2015
The problems is the laws are not being enforced to begin with.. We don't need more laws. Just enforce the ones we already have.
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Curmudgeon's Opinion
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07/28/2015
Establish prisons offshore where there will be no need to maintain such perimeter security. Why was Alcatraz left to close when it was such a good example of the concept. Of course we would have to choose locations beyond the range of remote control drones today and remain vigilant of air traffic to prevent delivery of survival flotation etc.
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bill Progress


  • Not enacted
    The President has not signed this bill
  • The senate has not voted
  • The house has not voted
      house Committees
      Committee on Energy and Commerce
      Health
      Committee on the Judiciary
      Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security
    IntroducedJune 25th, 2015

What is House Bill H.R. 2944?

This bill would apply state-level criminal justice reforms to the federal criminal justice system — aiming to safely reduce both the size and cost of the corrections system, namely for federal prisons. From the New York Times

"Their bill would sentence most first-time, low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to probation rather than prison; give judges more discretion to grant leniency; create alternatives to prison, like drug-treatment and mental-health programs; reward prison contractors for reducing recidivism; largely end federal prosecution of simple drug possession; and confine mandatory-minimum sentences to high-level traffickers."

This is a hefty bill with reforms that touch many parts of the criminal justice system. Here are some highlights: 

Reducing What Counts As "Crime"

The bill explicitly goes after "overcriminalization" — through a number of policies that hope to increase transparency and flexibility, and by eliminating federal criminal penalties for simple drug possession in state jurisdictions. Overcriminalization in this context is the belief that the U.S. turns too often to the criminal justice system to resolve wrongs, grievances and disputes — criminalizing behavior that should be addressed in other ways. The Justice Fellowship notes: 

In addition to the near 4,500 statutory federal crimes, there are estimated to be between 100,000–300,000 federal regulations that may carry criminal penalties. Many of these laws make every day innocent actions subject to criminal prosecution. This derails  a fundamental principle in criminal law: actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea — the act itself does not make one a criminal unless done with criminal intent.

Under this bill, victims of overcriminalization could contact the Dept. of Justice’s (DOJ) inspector general to seek relief.

Sentencing & Drug Convictions

Eligibility for sentencing alternatives like pre-judgment probation under this bill would be expanded to more low-level offenders. Judicial districts would be encouraged to open special courts for drug crimes, veterans, and mental health issues. Drug trafficking offenders who provide significant assistance to the government would have increased access to a ‘safety valve’ that allows them to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for their crimes.

Life sentences would only be handed down for drug trafficking in the most egregious cases. 

Judges would get to set the extent to which criminal conduct resulting from law enforcement “sting” operations could be considered in court. To protect against wrongful convictions, the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) would adopt an “open file” discovery policy, allowing defendants and their representation to access investigative case files in their entirety.

Post-Conviction

Congress would be directed to establish procedures for evaluating the risk posed by people convicted of crimes in order to maximize the amount of prison space used to house violent and career criminals. The role that an offender plays in a drug offense would be considered, and higher-level traffickers would be targeted with mandatory-minimums and resources to combat recidivism.

Eligible offenders could petition for re-sentencing under the revised trafficking laws, and compassionate release programs for lower-risk geriatric and terminally-ill offenders would be expanded. 

Time in Prison 

Prison personnel would receive training in mental health and de-escalation techniques to temper violent and dangerous situations in the correctional system. 

Earned time would be expanded to encourage more inmates to participate in individualized recidivism reduction programs. Offenders who are on probation or under post-prison supervision would subject to swift, definitive, and escalating punishments for re-offending, while those who are compliant would receive credits.

After Prison 

Halfway houses would be subject to mandatory performance-based contracting, so that unsuccessful halfway homes would be less likely to receive future funding.

All future sentencing and corrections bills would be required to be accompanied by fiscal impact statements. For courts, all pre-sentencing reports must include sentencing cost analyses. The U.S. Sentencing Commission would be expanded to include a non-voting federal defender representative. 

Congress would get to change the definition of “good time credit” as it is used in sentencing — i.e. how sentences are reduced for prisoners who exhibit "good behavior" while in prison. Federal agencies that work in criminal justice would have to report on the population of the correctional system and recidivism rates. The Innocence Protection Act would be reauthorized, and the Attorney General would have to develop best practices to reduce wrongful convictions.

Impact

Prisoners who could be eligible for resentencing based on new guidelines, participate in recidivism reduction programs, or earned time programs; future offenders who could receive more lenient or severe sentences based on the severity of their crime, workers in the correctional system, judges, and the DOJ.

Cost of House Bill H.R. 2944

A CBO cost estimate is unavailable.

More Information

In-Depth: Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI)  the lead sponsor of this legislation  lamented the status of the U.S. criminal justice system, and Congress’ inaction on implementing reforms:

“We cannot allow our criminal justice system to remain on its current trajectory. It’s not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible. The states have been outperforming Congress on criminal justice reform for years, so todays introduction of the SAFE Justice Act is a major step forward in implementing effective, meaningful reform on the federal level that will enact fairness in sentencing, reduce the taxpayer burden, and ensure the increased safety and prosperity of communities across the country.”

In a summary prepared by the bill’s sponsors, they note that their legislation incorporates several lessons learned through state-level criminal justice reforms, including:

  • Swift and certain responses — whether rewards or punishments — are more effective in helping offenders reform their behavior than unpredictable or delayed responses.

  • Earned time policies for inmates and compliance credits for offenders on probation or post-release supervision can lower costs and reduce recidivism. It accomplishes this through accelerated release times and shifting correctional costs to offenders that continue to break laws.

  • Severe sentences and mandatory minimums for mid-level drug offenders (like dealers and distributors) is less effective than reserving those punishments for the high-level drug offenders due to the “replacement effect” of new recruits replacing incarcerated mid-level dealers.

  • Sending lower-level offenders to drug and mental health courts, treatment programs, and intensive supervision holds them accountable and reduces recidivism. Alternatively, sentencing low-level offenders to prison heightens recidivism by disrupting the social fabric within their families and communities.

  • Age is a significant predictor of criminality, and imprisoning offenders into their 50s, 60s, and 70s provides diminishing returns for public safety. Utilizing targeted geriatric release programs ensures that heinous offenders remain incarcerated, while offenders who pose a lesser risk can be shifted out of the prison system to reduce costs without posing a substantial threat to the public.

This bill has robust bipartisan support, with 18 Democrats and 17 Republicans having signed on as cosponsors.


Of Note: Recently there has been a groundswell of momentum in Congress for criminal justice reform, with numerous bills being introduced with strong support from both sides of the aisle. Among those proposals are the REDEEM Act — which focuses on record expungement for low-level and juvenile offenders; the Smarter Sentencing Act that modifies federal mandatory minimums; the CORRECTIONS Act that creates a system for earned time and early release for low-risk prisoners; and bills that attempt to improve mental health screenings in the criminal justice system and reduce recidivism.

According to the Urban Institute, the federal prison population has increased tenfold from 1980 to a level exceeding 218,000 prisoners. An assessment of the federal prison system by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that in fiscal year 2014, the cost of federal prisons was almost $7.3 billion — which is about 19 percent of the DOJ’s total annual budget.


Media:

Summary by Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: "Inmates Orleans Parish Prison" by Bart Everson - Flickr: Inmates. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

AKA

Sensenbrenner-Scott Over-Criminalization Task Force Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015

Official Title

To improve public safety, accountability, transparency, and respect for federalism in Federal criminal law by applying the findings of the bipartisan Over-Criminalization Task Force and evidence-based reforms already made by some States, and reinvesting the resulting savings from doing so in additional evidence-based criminal justice strategies that are proven to reduce recidivism and crime, and the burden of the criminal justice system on the taxpayer.

    "For people who have committed crimes that have landed them in jail, there needs to be a path back from prison. The federal system of parole needs to be reinstated. We need real education and real skills training for the incarcerated." [betterworld.net]
    Like (149)
    Follow
    Share
    “Years ago, I authored legislation that required certainty in sentencing so victims like the woman I met in Green Bay can know how long the man who attacked her will be behind bars — whether it is two or 20 years. As a victim, she deserves to be a part of that process and she deserves to have the peace of mind of knowing how long he will be in prison.” Read more at https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/get-people-ready-work
    Like (5)
    Follow
    Share
    "I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it's normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It's not normal. It's not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things." [cnn.com]
    Like (62)
    Follow
    Share
    “I have to say this, in terms of our cities and in terms of the violent offenses, we have to get tougher. The police are fantastic people and they have to be allowed to do their job... [but in terms of drugs and marijuana] there have to be changes. ” [msnbc.com]
    Like (42)
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    People should follow all laws, but it's quite clear that some offenses are much less severe than others. Having people in prison for small mistakes such as marijuana use and sale is ridiculous, and needs reform.
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    The problems is the laws are not being enforced to begin with.. We don't need more laws. Just enforce the ones we already have.
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    "Lots of people can talk about criminal justice reform. I have actually done it." [cnn.com]
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    Smoking weed, stealing a car, and cutting someone's head off should not all warrant the same punishment. People have been sent to jail for life for each of those offenses and that is not how the law should work. We need reform.
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    Establish prisons offshore where there will be no need to maintain such perimeter security. Why was Alcatraz left to close when it was such a good example of the concept. Of course we would have to choose locations beyond the range of remote control drones today and remain vigilant of air traffic to prevent delivery of survival flotation etc.
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    “Incarceration can turn low-level lawbreakers into hardened career criminals.” Read more at http://www.nationalreview.com/article/415557/republican-2016ers-are-rethinking-tough-crime-michael-tanner
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    I am voting YEA, but with reservations. There is much about this bill that sounds good. It could potentially help balance the scale of justice. I just hope it doesn't go too far. We're already seeing terrible consequences from Obama's "catch and release" policy where criminal illegal aliens are concerned. Bleeding heart liberals want everyone to play the victim card, so that lawbreakers don't have to be held accountable and suffer the consequences of the bad choices they make. Unfortunately, ours is a nation that has, generally speaking, lost its moral compass. People have turned away from God Almighty and do whatever they want. Thank GOD we HAVE laws and prisons to restrain the LAWLESS! The sad thing is that the law doesn't seem to apply to anyone in the Obama Administration (past or present)! God has told us: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” (Romans‬ ‭13:1-4‬ ‭NKJV‬‬)
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    All for this if it is strictly limited to FIRST TIME, NON-VIOLENT offenders. Totally opposed to any deviation of that restriction. Common sense.
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    Too many criminals are n prison for minor offenses. Mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated.
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    To reduce the size and cost just use the simplest solution, eliminate the problem by executing them.
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    Would could have fewer appeals on the death sentence. That would mean fewer criminals on death row for shorter periods of time. Hey if a babies life doesn't count why should a murder's life count. Or ever three time losers.
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    I believe we need to rethink criminal justice from the perspective of keeping Americans safe rather than from the perspective of punishing criminals. I hope that law makers will keep that as their priority and be open to research that shows the effectiveness (or not) of incarceration.
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    The current system of incarceration is tantamount to a modern day Jim Crow.
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    Violent criminals should be put to death immediately. Non violent offenders should serve the maximum sentences
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    No. The only thing that is going to impact the growing prison problem is the life changing message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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    When we have the same yardstick for all, then we won't need so many prisons. The prison population has exploded since we introduced the profit motive.
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