Safe Justice Act–Realistic Reform or More of the Same?

The following data illustrates that in the past 35 years, there has been a tremendous spike in the criminalization of conduct by the federal government: from 1980 to 2013, the number of federal crimes codified in the code increased from 3,000 to approximately 5,000; over the same period, the federal prison population skyrocketed from 24,000 to 215,000 — a 795% increase; and not to be outdone, federal spending on prisons soared from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion — a 595% increase.

These depressing statistics are the genesis for the bi-partisan SAFE Justice Act that was introduced on June 25 th . Most reforms to date have focused on cutting mandatory minimum sentences, which force judges to sentence people to five, 10, or 20 years for certain drug crimes. But across-the-board cuts to mandatory minimums have been met with serious resistance from old-school Republicans. The Safe Justice Act’s solution isn’t to reduce the mandatory minimums themselves — but to narrow the people to whom they apply. Instead of targeting someone who’s convicted of trafficking a certain amount of a drug for a specified mandatory sentence, under the SAFE Justice Act, the mandatory minimum would only be triggered if, for example, he were also a leader or organizer of an organization of five or more people. Even then, the bill provides that judges can override the mandatory minimum if the defendant doesn’t have much of a criminal history, or has a serious drug problem.

The bill would also make it possible for more people to be sentenced to probation instead of getting sent to prison. It would allow drug offenders to get probation if they’d been convicted of low-level drug crimes before. It would encourage judges to give probation to first-time low-level offenders. And it would encourage districts to start up drug courts and other “problem-solving courts.”

Current prisoners whose sentences would have been affected by the bill’s front-end reforms could apply to get their sentences reduced, as envisioned by the legislation. But the Safe Justice Act would also give them another way to reduce their sentences: by getting time off for rehabilitation. Under the bill, every federal prisoner would get an individual case plan, based on what particular prison education, work, substance abuse, or other programs are the best fit for his needs. For every month a prisoner follows the case plan, he’d get 10 days off his prison sentence — meaning a prisoner with a perfect behavior record could get his sentence reduced by a third. (Prisoners serving time for homicide, terrorism, or sex crimes aren’t eligible for time off). The logic is that prisoners who want to rehabilitate themselves, and whose good behavior shows they’re succeeding, shouldn’t be forced to spend extra time in prison just for prison’s sake.

The bill goes even further when it comes to probation — for every month of perfect behavior on probation, the offender would get 30 days off the end of his sentence — essentially cutting the probation term in half. If the offender violated probation, on the other hand, there would be a set of gradually escalating punishments, instead of an automatic ticket back to prison.