Federal Sentencing Commission Advances Meaningful Criminal Justice Reforms

On November 1, 2023, critical changes to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines went into effect after having been adopted by the United States Sentencing Commission this past spring. FWD.us is proud to have supported a number of the amendments, which are poised to reduce racial disparities in sentencing, impact tens of thousands of people serving time in the Bureau of Prisons, and safely reduce the number of people in federal prisons—a goal shared by Republicans and Democrats alike.1 These reforms are long overdue and represent an important step forward in reigning in a federal prison population that is the largest in the country, despite mounting evidence that long prison terms do not reduce crime and that incarceration is the most expensive and one of the least effective methods of keeping communities safe.

In May 2022, President Biden nominated a slate of seven Commissioners for the United States Sentencing Commission. The nominations were remarkable not only because they included Judge Carlton Reeves, who would become the Commission’s first Black chairperson, but also because the Commission had been operating without a quorum since 2019 and had been unable to pursue its mission of updating the Guidelines and promulgating data-driven sentencing guidance for the federal judiciary. The Senate confirmed the bipartisan slate soon after, and this past spring the Commission adopted the first set of amendments to the Guidelines since regaining a quorum.

Among the recently adopted amendments are two evidence-based and urgently-needed changes that will help curb long federal prison sentences and bring people home to their families. The first provides guidance to judges deciding “compassionate release” motions under the First Step Act), passed in 2018. The Commission also adopted a pair of amendments—the “Criminal History Amendments”—that will reduce the recommended sentences for people with minimal or no previous criminal convictions and for people who were on probation or parole at the time of their offense. The Commission decided in August to make the Criminal History Amendments retroactive, making these sentence reductions available to thousands of people currently incarcerated in federal prisons. This is an especially important win in light of significant increases in the federal prison population in 2021 and 2022 that have come despite evidence that reductions in crime and reductions in incarceration can go hand in hand.

These reforms build on the successful release of thousands of people from federal prison to home confinement during the pandemic under the CARES Act.2 The CARES Act releases were studied by Senator Cory Booker, and his recent report finds that of the over 13,000 people released as part of the CARES Act Home Confinement Program, only 22 were rearrested for a new crime, mostly drug-related. While home confinement is not the answer to the country’s incarceration crisis, the program does show the need to rethink our reliance on prisons as our principal public safety policy tool. Together, these reforms also demonstrate that, even in the midst of a polarized and highly politicized public conversation about public safety, there are still concrete pathways to advance impactful criminal justice reforms.

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