SAFE Justice Act Would Apply Lessons From State Reforms to Federal Sentencing and Corrections System

Act Would Apply Lessons From State Reforms to Federal Sentencing and Corrections

A bill introduced today by U.S. Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) would establish research-based, state-tested policies to comprehensively improve the federal sentencing and corrections system. The Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act would prioritize federal prison space for chronic and violent offenders, reduce recidivism through enhanced supervision of offenders in the community, and increase transparency and accountability throughout the system.

“States as diverse as Rhode Island, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas are showing that it’s possible to cut crime and imprisonment at the same time,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s public safety performance project. “By building on these successes, this legislation represents Congress’ best opportunity in years to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and contain the spiraling cost of the federal prison system.”

As highlighted in a recent Pew fact sheet, federal prison spending increased from less than $1 billion in 1980 to nearly $7 billion in 2013 as the number of inmates rose nearly 800 percent, from 24,000 to more than 215,000. The growth was largely driven by policy choices that led to an influx of drug offenders and an increase in the amount of time inmates served behind bars.

Highlights of the SAFE Justice Act include:

  • Use of swift and certain responses to deter offending.
  • Earned-time policies to reduce recidivism.
  • Strategic sentencing for drug offenders and evidence-based sentencing alternatives.
  • Prioritizing of prison space for high-risk, violent career criminals.
  • Targeted geriatric release programs.

Beginning with Texas in 2007, more than two dozen states have enacted comprehensive sentencing and corrections reforms, usually with overwhelming bipartisan support. Alabama, Nebraka, and Utah adopted significant reform packages this year. Utah’s new policies are projected to prevent nearly all of the state’s anticipated prison growth, save $500 million over the next 20 years, and redirect a portion of the savings toward building stronger, more cost-effective systems of community supervision.


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Data-driven policymaking is not just a tool for finding new solutions for emerging challenges, it makes government more effective and better able to serve the public interest. In the coming months, President Joe Biden and the 117th Congress will tackle a number of environmental, health, public safety, and fiscal and economic issues—nearly all of them complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To help solve specific, systemic problems in a nonpartisan fashion, Pew has compiled a series of briefings and recommendations based on our research, technical assistance, and advocacy work across America.