The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged US Congress to pass a major criminal justice reform bill, which it claims will improve the fairness of federal prison sentencing and better protect the rights of prisoners.
Introduced in the US Congress on 25 June, the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act proposes reforms across all stages of the criminal justice process, from pre-trial detention to post-confinement probation.
Sponsored by Wisconsin and Virginia representatives, Jim Sensenbrenner and Bobby Scott, the bill is expected to reform federal sentencing statutes to promote fairer results, and will modify mandatory minimum sentences to exclude people with a low-level or minimal role in drug trafficking offenses.
With the new bill, the judges will get more discretion through ‘safety valves’ to impose sentences on drug offenders shorter than those required by mandatory minimums, and narrow sentencing enhancements that presently can turn a ten-year sentence into a life sentence due to earlier drug crimes.
By making changes to the federal compassionate release programme, the bill will allegedly enable prisoners to petition a court directly for compassionate release in cases involving the death or incapacitation of their child’s primary caregiver.
The compassionate release petition currently requires approval from the Bureau of Prison.
Human Rights Watch US advocacy director Antonio Ginatta said: "Federal prisons are filled beyond capacity with people serving grotesquely long sentences.
"The SAFE Justice Act proposes thoughtful reforms that address some of the abuses of the ‘tough on crime’ era.
"The SAFE Justice Act is not a cure-all, but a smartly crafted bill that would better align the federal prison system with its human rights obligations. It’s a promising vehicle for change."
Additionally, the bill would need the US Attorney General to train federal correctional staff on how to better identify and respond to people with mental disabilities under their custody as well as on de-escalation techniques for their responses.
An outcome of the House Judiciary Committee’s task force on over-criminalisation, the SAFE Justice Act was introduced after introduction of several reform-minded bills in the Senate, including the Smarter Sentencing Act and the CORRECTIONS Act.
Image: An inmate looks out from his cell in the Security Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, California, US. Photo: Copyright 2013 Reuters.