NDRN optimistic about proposed sentencing reform bills

prisoners' feet and the wheels of a wheelchair
Prison Sentencing Reform

Legislators have introduced comprehensive sentencing reform measures in both chambers of Congress this month, raising the hopes of disability advocates long concerned about the disproportionate impact of punitive prison sentences on people with disabilities.

“This compromise represents more than three years of work on criminal justice reform,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act [PDF] with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) on Oct. 1, in a news release. “The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth.

“Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.”

If passed, the bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of offenses, for the primary purposes of reducing sentences for repeat, non-violent offenders sentenced on drug and firearm possession charges. Expanded supports for programs to assist incarcerated people reenter society are included as well.

The measure would also limit the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders and expand early release programs for the elderly and people with chronic illnesses, according to the three-page bill summary [PDF]. All the changes would apply retroactively.

While optimistic the reform would create a more “human system” for prisoners, the National Disability Rights Network expressed concern that the bills, as currently written, do not highlight the unique challenges of inmates with disabilities.

“Increased support for anti-recidivism programs and comprehensive risk assessments are useful improvements to the current system,” NDRN Executive Director Curt Decker said in a news release. “However, they will only improve the programming prisoners with disabilities receive if disability is specifically included in the bill language.

“The present bill language does not include a specific consideration of disability in its provisions addressing reentry and recovery planning, and post sentencing risk and needs assessment…Given the unique needs of prisoners with disabilities, and the demographic realities of the nation’s prison population, these additions make sense.”

Nationwide, it is estimated that more than 350,000 of the nation’s more than two million inmates have a severe mental illness.

Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) are also listed as co-sponsors of the bill.

The House version, titled the Sentencing Reform Act [PDF], is sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI), and Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Judy Chu (D-CA), Mike Bishop (R-MI), and Raul Labrador (R-ID).

Disability Rights Washington, publisher of Rooted in Rights, is the designated protection and advocacy agency for Washington, and is a member of the National Disability Rights Network.