New Criminal Justice Reform Bill Could Dramatically Reduce Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences

A bipartisan group of United States senators put out a criminal justice bill on October 1 that Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) president Julie Stewart called one of “the most significant pieces of sentencing reform legislation in a generation.” The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was originally introduced in October by Iowa Republican and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley. He was joined by Democratic senators Richard Durbin of Illinois, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Chuck Schumer of New York, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Cory Booker of New Jersey as well as Republican senators Mike Lee of Utah, John Cornyn of Texas, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The bill primarily aims to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. It would retroactively reduce mandatory life without parole sentences for third drug or violent felony offenses to 25 years and reduce mandatory minimums for second drug or violent felony offenses from 20 years to 15 years in prison. This retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 would lead to the early release of more than 6,000 inmates.

“This bill isn’t the full repeal of mandatory minimum sentences we ultimately need, but it is a substantial improvement over the status quo and will fix some of the worst injustices created by federal mandatory sentences,” FAMM president Julie Stewart said in a statement.

Some of the other reforms the bill would make to federal sentencing laws include:

  • Expand the drug safety valve exception;
  • Allow inmates sentenced to life as juveniles to apply for parole;
  • Limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles;
  • Reduce the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for people convicted for gun possession offenses under the Armed Career Criminal Act to a mandatory minimum term of 10 years;
  • Reduce the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for those who commit second or subsequent offenses of possessing guns in the course of drug trafficking offenses or crimes of violence to a mandatory minimum term of 15 years; and
  • Allow some prisoners to earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs and use the credits for a transfer to a different type of supervision.

It remains to be seen if this bill will be put into law, but the fact that members of both political parties were able to put aside their differences to work on this effort is certainly encouraging. While this legislation would mean a great deal to people facing non-violent felony drug charges, it is somewhat disappointing that there were not similar efforts made to reduce the mandatory minimums for certain white collar crimes.

As a New York City criminal defense lawyer, I have regularly represented clients who were facing incredibly harsh mandatory minimum sentences for alleged crimes involving controlled substances. My first intention is always to investigate and determine all of the ways I might be able to get the criminal charges dismissed. When necessary, I try to negotiate a reduced sentence and determine the best resolution that results in the fewest possible penalties.