A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Advocates urge Congress to act to address harsh sentencing laws during lame-duck session

By Mary Kuhlman
Public News Service

People languishing in federal prison for decades on nonviolent drug convictions may get a new chance at justice if the U.S, Senate finds the political will to pass sentencing reform in the final weeks of the lame-duck session.

Groups on both left and right on the political spectrum support the First Step Act, a series of measures to give judges more freedom to get around harsh sentencing laws first passed in the 1980s and 90s.

This year, Kentucky’s prison population surpassed 25,000 for the first time. (Free-Photos/Pixabay)

Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives with the advocacy group The Sentencing Project, says the bill would take the existing reforms that fixed the gulf between sentences for trafficking crack versus powder cocaine and make them retroactive.

“It would impact about 2,600 people who are still in prison,” she states. “It would give them an opportunity to petition to a judge for re-sentencing.”

President Donald Trump has expressed support for the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to schedule a vote.

The U.S. has 2.6 million people behind bars right now, but these reforms would only affect the 181,000 in federal prisons.

The First Step Act would also add a “safety valve” that lets judges get around mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug cases.

Gotsch explains many states are taking sentencing reform into their own hands.

“States across the country have passed mandatory minimum sentencing reform and seen impressive results – of not only reducing their prison population but also seeing a reduction in crime – because it allows government and communities to reinvest their dollars in other ways that help to protect and secure communities,” she points out.

Here in Kentucky, there are some calls for reforms to reduce the state’s prison population, which this year rose above 25,000 for the first time.

This week, Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley discussed reducing some drug possession penalties and ending the state’s cash bail system

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