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Several lawmakers involved in a push to reform the nation's criminal justice laws came together Wednesday in a call for action on the issue.
"We’re not looking at what sounds good in terms of polling or flash-in-the-pan sound bites," Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said in Washington.
"[T]hat is not going to solve the problem," he continued, lauding provisions of a recently introduced bill that includes changing how mandatory minimum sentences are used.
“We have very few things in this country that could be called a moral calling. I consider ending mandatory minimums a moral calling,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at the criminal justice summit.
The meeting, organized by the Coalition for Public Safety and prison reform group #cut50, comes amid a push by lawmakers and the Obama administration to address mass incarceration and related laws.
President Obama called on Congress last week to act on the issue during a speech at the NAACP meeting in Philadelphia, punctuated with a visit to a federal prison in El Reno, Okla.
Obama has sought to win over Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in hopes of getting Congress to act on criminal justice reform this year.
Grassley has resisted previous efforts to relax prison sentencing guidelines. His counterpart in the House, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), on Wednesday acknowledged hurdles facing reform advocates.
Goodlatte maintained that reforms be guided by facts "because criminal justice reform has important repercussions for both inmates and the innocent citizens our laws are designed to protect."
Sentencing and prison reform, civil asset forfeiture reform and policing strategy are of particular interest, along with a focus on overcriminalization, Goodlatte said.
Obama and other supporters of criminal justice reform have said the pricetag of inaction is the billions of dollars spent each year on prison for nonviolent drug offenders.
Nearly a third of the Justice Department's budget also goes to the Bureau of Prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates noted at the meeting Wednesday.
Advocates for reforming the laws, which they note disproportionately affect black and Hispanic communities, also point out that the U.S. has about 5 percent of the world's population but accounts for nearly a quarter of its prison population.
“I believe that sentencing reform will make prosecutors and law enforcement officers more effective, not less effective,” Yates said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a presidential candidate and vocal advocate for change, named civil asset forfeiture reform and equipping police with body cameras as the most tenable options in the Senate.
Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) praised prior House efforts and said of the bill from Sensenbrenner and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) that he would "like to see it on the floor."