Smarter Sentencing Act Passes Key Senate Committee
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act by a bipartisan 13-5 vote, sending the bill to the Senate floor. The SSA, as the ACLU put it, is the most “significant piece of criminal justice reform to make it to the Senate floor in several years.” As Reform Jews committed to humane punishment and to addressing the root causes of crime, we join with other advocates of criminal justice reform in applauding the bill and encouraging the Senate to pass it.
The Smarter Sentencing Act, as it passed committee, represents a mostly positive, incremental approach to sentencing reform by:
- Reducing mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offenders by half;
- Narrowly expanding the “safety valve” to allow judges to sentence some offenders below the mandatory minimum;
- Applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively, so as to allow prisoners sentenced before 2010 to reduce their sentences to what they would be today;
- Requiring federal agencies to make federal laws and regulations and their criminal penalties public, to reduce the issue of people serving prison time for laws they break unintentionally; and
- Adding a few new mandatory minimum sentences, for charges of sexual abuse, interstate domestic violence, and some terrorism offenses.
Mandatory minimum laws are unjust because they eliminate judicial discretion and, as currently constituted, have racially discriminatory effects. In addition, they contribute to overcrowding and ballooning expenditures for the federal prison system. The Smarter Sentencing Act would not eliminate mandatory minimums, but would reduce them and increase exemptions that would give judge’s the ability to make appropriate sentencing determinations.
The Smarter Sentencing Act is part of a broader push to fix the country’s criminal justice system. Bills addressing a number of problems with the system, especially sentencing, recidivism and rehabilitation, have been considered in recent months. Many Americans do not think about reform of the criminal justice system as a civil rights issue—but it is a vital one.
Our current system often punishes victims in ways that do not contribute to a safer or more just society. As the Torah states, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). As Reform Jews, we must be concerned with a system that instead is often racially discriminatory and fails to “eradicate those factors that furnish the breeding ground of crime.”