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.
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.
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.