Historic Criminal Justice Bill Passes Senate Judiciary Committee

Bipartisan Bill Reduces Mandatory Minimums, Increases Early Release and Returns Some Discretion to Judges

NEW YORK—(ENEWSPF)—October 22, 2015. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 15 to 5 to advance the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The bill, introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and sponsored by ten other Senators, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, expand the federal “safety valve” (which allows judges to use their discretion to sentence people below statutory mandatory minimums), expand reentry programming and early release, and make many of the sentencing reductions retroactive.

“This vote today is a huge step toward ending the failed policies of the war on drugs,” said Michael Collins, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “To see Republicans and Democrats join hands to pass this bill gives me great hope we’ll have legislation on the President’s desk very soon.”

The vote comes the day after an esteemed group of 130 law enforcement leaders called on Congress to reduce incarceration. The group will meet with President Obama today at the White House. The President also began a criminal justice tour yesterday, visiting West Virginia and highlighting alternatives to arrest and incarceration. 

Public support for criminal justice reform is also at an all-time high. Last week, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) conducted a poll that showed that 77% of Americans support repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses.

“Mandatory minimums and draconian sentences have had a devastating impact on families and communities,” said Anthony Papa, Manager of Media Relations at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years on a first-time, nonviolent drug charge. “Congress can’t undo the damage of the past, but they can reform these laws to allow people to come home and minimize future injustices.”

The bill now moves to the Senate floor. Companion legislation has been introduced in the House, and should move forward soon. 

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The Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race

New York Times

Senators to Unveil Bipartisan Plan to Ease Sentencing Laws, By CARL HULSE and JENNIFER STEINHAUER, OCT. 1, 2015 —

WASHINGTON — A long-awaited bipartisan proposal to cut mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and promote more early release from federal prisons is scheduled to be disclosed Thursday by an influential group of senators who hope to build on backing from conservatives, progressives and the White House.

The comprehensive plan, which has the crucial support of Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, is the product of intense and difficult negotiations between Republicans and Democrats who hope to reduce the financial and societal costs of mass incarceration that have hit minority communities particularly hard.

The push has benefited from an unusual convergence of interests in an otherwise polarized Washington and has become a singular issue that usually warring groups have rallied around. Progressive advocacy groups have embraced the possibility of less jail time and better preparation for offenders when they are released; conservatives have championed the potential savings in reducing prison populations and spending on the strained criminal justice system.

According to those familiar with the still-secret agreement, the legislation proposes an extensive set of changes in federal sentencing requirements. Those changes include a reduction in mandatory minimum sentencing to five years from 10 for qualified cases; a reduction in automatic additional penalties for those with prior drug felonies; and more discretion for judges in assessing criminal history.

The legislation would also ban solitary confinement for juveniles in nearly all cases, and allow those sentenced as juveniles to seek a reduction in sentencing after 20 years. Many of the new rules could be applied retroactively to people now serving time.

The authors also took steps to deny any new leniency to those who committed serious violent crimes or drug felonies. And the bill would put some new mandatory minimum sentences in place for those convicted of interstate domestic violence or providing weapons or other material to terrorists or certain countries.

Lawmakers hoping for more sweeping changes did not win the across-the-board reductions in mandatory minimum sentences they had sought when the negotiations began. They compromised to win the backing of Mr. Grassley, who in the past has been critical of broad efforts to reduce prison time.

If the authors wish to push the legislation through this year, it will require an aggressive effort and a decision by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, to make the measure a priority. The bill is most likely to be considered by the Judiciary Committee this month, with a committee vote possible on Oct. 22. Congressional consideration could also be kicked into 2016.

The leadership shake-up in the House, where a similar bill is being put together, could influence the proposal’s fate, as well. Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, whose resignation from Congress is effective at the end of October, had strongly endorsed the general concept of a sentencing overhaul, but it is unclear what the view of the new leadership team will be.

Despite broad support for the legislation, the effort to work out the details slowed in the Senate as some advocates and lawmakers worried the negotiations would fall apart after lawmakers regularly predicted an unveiling that never materialized. Some tough-on-crime statements from Republican presidential candidates and a highly publicized increase in murders in cities across the country also raised fears that the effort could stall, even though the proposal is aimed at nonviolent crimes.

The Senate proposal is also silent on the issue of criminal intent, an element of mounting interest among conservatives who want sentencing eased in cases where offenders claim they did not know they were breaking the law. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in a recent speech that any change must have new protections for people accused of crimes they did not realize they were committing.

Some said the pace of the negotiations illustrated the difficulties of assembling such a far-reaching bill, particularly with members of Congress not accustomed to regularly working in a bipartisan fashion.

The chief negotiators on the sentencing part of the legislation were Senators Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, and Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, joined Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, in writing the provisions on early release and programs to aid re-entry to society. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, was also involved, along with the Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Backers of a criminal justice overhaul were not aware of the details of the legislative deal, which senators were trying to keep under wraps until the announcement Thursday, but they welcomed the movement toward getting the debate in the public arena.

“This sounds good to us,” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, which has led conservatives in calling for new sentencing laws and is part of the bipartisan Coalition for Public Safety. “It is a good place to start, and hopefully this will be the impetus that gets things moving.”

Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, another part of the coalition, noted that “the devil is in the details.”

“But we’re hopeful that the bipartisan compromise will mean real reform to reduce sentences, provide immediate relief, and begin to bring down the prison population,” she said.