Is the U.S. About to Significantly Reform Sentencing Laws for the First Time Since the 1980’s?

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 3.03.37 PMThere aren’t many issues that bring Democrats and Republicans together in Washington these days, but decades of failed policies and the current economic climate are doing just that on an unlikely topic: criminal justice reform.

Early next week, at the annual American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will likely propose bold efforts aimed at criminal justice reform. It will be the first time the federal government has attempted major sentencing reform since the crack epidemic of the 1980’s.

The country’s failed war on drugs is largely why Holder and leaders from across the political spectrum are calling for the elimination of mandatory minimums and criminal prosecution of minor, non-violent drug crimes and a greater emphasis on treatment in lieu of incarceration.

Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul have jointly introduced legislation that will allow judges to use more discretion in sentencing.  And not just on drug crimes.  In September, the Senators plan to hold a hearing on mandatory minimums.

Read what conservative columnist George Will wrote about their bill.

In an interview with NPR, Holder argued that the decades-old war on drugs has had “unintended consequences. There has been a decimation of certain communities, in particular, communities of color.”

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and his Republican counterpart, Utah’s Mike Lee, introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act late last week. The bill is aimed at cutting down prison overcrowding and costs by lowering mandatory minimums on drug crimes, and it also proposes greater judicial discretion in sentencing for low-level crimes.

These exciting new efforts to address the mass incarceration problem at the Federal level stand in stark contrast to spending in Tennessee, where the General Assembly recently approved $30 million in upgrades to a brand new $208 million dollar prison in East Tennessee, and the state’s criminal code has grown into a bloated and complex collection of laws since it was last overhauled in 1989.

Holder will make his proposal at the ABA conference in San Francisco Monday, Aug 12th 10:30 PDT.  You can follow his announcement on Twitter – #ABAAnnual or @ABAesq.  There conference will also hold panels on Stand Your Ground, immigration and human trafficking laws. See schedule highlights here.