Bipartisan groups push for federal prison sentencing reform

Offender in Prison with hands on bars

People languishing in federal prison for decades on nonviolent drug convictions may get a new chance at justice if the U.S. Senate finds the political will to pass sentencing reform in the final weeks of the lame-duck session.

Groups on both left and right on the political spectrum support the First Step Act, a series of measures to give judges more freedom to get around harsh sentencing laws first passed in the 1980s and ’90s. Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for The Sentencing Project, said the bill would take the existing reforms that fixed the gulf between sentences for trafficking crack versus powder cocaine and make them retroactive. 

“It would impact about 2,600 people who are still in prison,” she said. “It would give them an opportunity to petition to a judge for re-sentencing.”  President Donald Trump has expressed support for the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to schedule a vote. 

The United States now has 2.6 million people behind bars, but these reforms would only affect the 181,000 in federal prison. The First Step Act also would add a “safety valve” that lets judges get around mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug cases.

A similar state-level bill passed in the Missouri House of Representatives earlier this year, but stalled in the state Senate. Gotsch said other states have had a better track record with this type of reform.

“States across the country have passed mandatory minimum sentencing reform and seen impressive results of not only reducing their prison population but also seeing a reduction in crime,” she said, ” because it allows government and communities to reinvest their dollars in other ways that help to protect and secure communities.”

According to the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Missouri has the eighth-largest prison population in the country and will have to build two additional prisons to accommodate 35,000 people by 2021 unless sentencing reforms are passed.

The text of the First Step Act is online at congress.gov. In the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 1739 is at legiscan.com, and Senate Bill 748 is at senate.mo.gov.