1. Statement
  2. Criminal Justice

FCNL Supports the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

By José Santos Woss, Ruth Flower, March 1, 2016


The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123) takes an important step toward restoring judging authority to judges, reducing mandatory minimum sentences, and lowering the population of federal prisons.

Senator Grassley (IA) and eleven bipartisan cosponsors introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, S. 2123, on October 1. This bill is the product of negotiations among Senate Judiciary Committee members and with other keenly interested senators.

What does FCNL look for in a sentencing reform bill?

In looking for reforms, FCNL’s sense is that the first focus should be disproportionately long sentences, which destroy possibilities for successful re-entry into civilian life, and which overcrowd the prisons. An important aspect of that focus is the racial imbalance in the prison population, with people of color – and particularly African American young men – being far more likely to be sent to prison, and for longer sentences, than others. We are looking for legislation that will reduce the prison population significantly, and focus on the seriousness of crimes committed, rather than on the race of the person committing the crime.

What does the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) do?

This bipartisan bill focuses on non-violent drug-related crimes, distinguishing them in several ways from violent crimes and the more serious drug trafficking crimes.

  • The bill restores some discretion to judges, allowing them to take into account the criminal history of individuals being charged with drug-related crimes, and the relative level of their involvement in the crime. A judge could reduce the current 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug related crime, if the person being charged did not have a history of violent or serious drug crime, and the crime was not a violent crime or one that resulted in serious injury.
  • Judges could also look back into criminal histories to consider the character of previous offenses, and the relative role of an individual in carrying out those crimes, to determine whether a mandatory minimum sentence should apply.
  • The bill reduces several lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, including
    • From a life-without-parole sentence down to 25 years for a third conviction of a drug- or violence-related felony.
    • From a 20-year minimum sentence down to 15 years for a second conviction of a drug- or violence-related felony.
    • From a 25-year minimum sentence down to 15 years for the use of a firearm during a crime of violence or a drug crime. Limits the sentence to those previously convicted of a similar offense, including state-level offenses.
  • The bill applies the Fair Sentencing Act to people currently serving overly long sentences for crack cocaine-related crimes. (The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, reduced the disparity in sentences for possession of crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine from a ratio of 100:1 to 18:1.)

The bill increases or creates new mandatory and maximum sentences for:

  • Domestic violence or stalking: involving death (10 year minimum), involving permanent disfigurement or life-threatening injury (up to 20 or 25 years), involving serious bodily injury or use of a dangerous weapon (up to 10 years).
  • Unlawful possession of a firearm by convicted felons and certain other offenders – mandatory minimum sentence raised from 10 to 15 years.
  • New mandatory minimum sentences (5 years) for exporting weapons of mass destruction, or other controlled goods or services that can support violent activities of terrorist organizations.

The bill also includes a strong emphasis on reducing recidivism, and preparing prisoners for re-entry into civilian life. It directs the Department of Justice to review existing programs, including state and local programs, to find the most effective ways for society to reclaim the individuals who have been diverted from community life into prison.

What does S.2123 NOT do?

The bill does not end all mandatory sentences.

Current mandatory sentences are reduced, in some cases, by only modest amounts, compared to the lifetime of a person. The bill allows judges to exercise some judgment about the relative culpability of defendants who appear in their courts, but it does not even out all sentencing so that more serious crimes are met with heavier sentences.

The bill does not make all the repairs that our criminal justice system needs.

In our current system, prisons and jails are the “go-to” response to crime. The system is not capable of addressing the roots of crime, diverting persons with mental illnesses or addictions into appropriate services, or changing the lives of prisoners. The bill takes important steps toward finding ways to reconcile criminal offenders with their communities, and to creating opportunities for convicted persons to begin a different kind of life upon release. The bill drafters also can’t predict the eventual impact of this legislation on racial disparities.

This bill is a start.

Its likely effect will be to reduce the federal prison population significantly, because it addresses sentences for drug related crimes, and a huge percentage of federal prisoners are serving time for drug related crimes. Perhaps most importantly, the bill conveys a sense of confidence that Congress can take steps to improve this nation’s response to crime, to reincorporate fairness, just processes, and compassion, and leave behind the panicky, swift reactions that left our nation with outrageous sentences to begin with.

José Santos Woss

  • Legislative Associate for Domestic Policy

José Woss is the Legislative Associate for Domestic Policy. He leads FCNL’s work on criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform (election integrity), and police militarization. He co-Chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of approximately 50 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.

Ruth Flower

  • Consultant, Native American Policy

Ruth leads FCNL’s lobbying, education, and coalition work as our consultant on Native American issues. She leads a coalition of faith groups who lobby on issues such as funding for tribal schools, support for “healing” justice systems, protection of religious and cultural rights, and support for tribal governance authority.