Currently pending in the Senate, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) could have far reaching, positive consequences for federal criminal law and the excessive incarceration rates in this country. The law was sponsored by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and also enjoys the support of Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat. The Act focuses on reforming 21 USC § 841, the primary federal drug law. If the Act becomes law, it would abolish mandatory life without parole for people with two prior drug convictions, replacing that penalty with a mandatory minimum 25 years for only certain offenders. That is huge— the threat of mandatory life is an extraordinarily powerful club federal prosecutors can use to pressure defendants in drug cases into taking plea deals they may not otherwise take.
The Act contains the following revisions to § 841:
Limits the types of drug offenses that can be used to multiple bill an offender under 21 USC § 851. Instead of all prior drug felonies being predicates for a bill, the Act would limit a predicate offense to a “serious drug felony,” defined as a drug offense for which the defendant was actually imprisoned for 12 months or longer. (This change in the law would also be a huge step forward— currently, even simple possession offenses can be used to bill a defendant, thereby enhancing mandatory minimum penalties).
Abolishes mandatory life for “three-strikes” offenders. Changes mandatory minimum to 25 years upon conviction of a third “serious drug felony”
Reduces the mandatory minimum for a second serious drug offense from 20 years to 15 years.
Additionally, the Act contains language that would make it retroactive, meaning that if someone is currently serving a term of imprisonment under the old law, then if the Act is passed, that person can apply to the Court for a reduction in their sentence.
Although the Act is currently stalled in the Senate, as is a similar law in the House, we can hope that the bills will move again after the current election season is over. Given the Act’s bipartisan support, I’m hopeful the Act will become law.