A new bill proposing to reduce the United States’ prison population while also cutting crime and saving money was introduced Thursday in the House by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
The legislation, titled the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, is the outcome of the congressmen's work leading the House Judiciary Committee’s Over-criminalization Task Force, which heard testimony from criminal justice experts over the past year and a half, according to a joint news release issued by Scott and Sensenbrenner’s offices.
The bill, H.R.2944, would apply at the federal level lessons from successful state efforts to reduce recidivism and decrease the number of non-violent inmates in prisons. The bill already boasts 20 additional co-sponsors, including 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
“We cannot allow our criminal justice system to remain on its current trajectory,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “It’s not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible.”
The comprehensive legislation proposes a broad set of reforms to the U.S. justice system, including increasing the use of sentencing alternatives such as probation for lower-level, non-violent offenders; encouraging judicial districts to operate mental health, veteran and other problem-solving courts; and prioritizing prison space for violent and “career” criminals by expanding the release of geriatric and terminally ill offenders.
In addition, the bill would expand earned-time policies to more inmates who participate in programs to reduce their recidivism risk; introduce mental health and de-escalation training programs for prison staff; and require performance-based contracting for halfway houses, among a number of other reforms.
The legislation has the support of groups including the NAACP, the Police Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
“This bill does more than tinker around the edges,” FAMM President Julie Stewart said in a statement. “I look forward to the SAFE Justice Act restoring Congress’s original intent and the correct state-federal balance in criminal justice.”
Among the states credited with helping inspire the legislation were Mississippi, California and Illinois, which have prison-diversion programs for lower-level offenders, and South Dakota, Georgia and South Carolina, which reformed their drug sentencing.
Vox notes that the SAFE Justice Act overlaps in some ways with both the Smarter Sentencing Act and Corrections Act, which were previously introduced in the Senate but have yet to garner much momentum.