Senators roll out criminal justice reform bill

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A bipartisan group of senators rolled out a criminal justice bill Thursday, calling it the most historic reform proposal in decades.

“There are things in here that each of us likes. There are items that each of would rather do without,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters. “But this is how the process works here in the Congress.”

{mosads}The legislation includes some reductions in mandatory minimum sentences, including those for nonviolent drug offenders, while increasing mandatory minimum sentences in other areas such as interstate domestic violence.

Grassley added that “for the first time we’re cutting back some of the most severe mandatory minimums.”

In addition to the Iowa Republican, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are supporting the legislation.

The group brings together tough-on-crime Republicans, including Grassley, and lawmakers who want mandatory minimums to be largely scaled back or done away with, such as Leahy and Lee.

Cornyn acknowledged that mandatory minimums are a “sore spot” for some people, but added that he was “glad we were able to preserve them for…  things like gun crimes.”  

The bill also includes parts of the Cornyn-Whitehouse prison reform bill, The Corrections Act, that would boost programs aimed at reducing relapses into criminal behavior and offer prisoners early release if they complete the programs.

Grassley has been leading the lawmakers in negotiations for months to try to reach a deal on criminal justice reform, with President Obama keeping the spotlight on the issue in recent months to try to pressure Congress.

Durbin added that he would need to get Grassley on board if criminal justice legislation was going to pass the Senate.

“We didn’t start off on the best of circumstances,” he told reporters. “Sen. Grassley was very skeptical, and said so publicly and on the floor, repeatedly. “

Grassley suggested the Judiciary Committee could take up the proposal “pretty soon” and Democrats expressed optimism that the legislation would make it to Obama’s desk.

“If you look at the political spectrum represented on this podium stage today, you can see how this can pass in the House of Representatives as well, if they accept the same challenge,” Durbin told reporters.

Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, praised the proposal, saying that it “makes important strides to address the most egregious mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. It will help to right past wrongs by retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to over 6,000 men and women currently in prison.” 

The legislation, though, doesn’t go as far as some reform advocates would like on reducing mandatory minimum sentences.

John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, said the Senate bill makes the “problematic decision to exclude violent offenders from any reconsideration or reform.”

“There’s some symbolic tough-on-crime theater in this bill: there are almost no federal domestic violence or terrorism cases. So those new mandatories will affect almost no one,” he added.

Leahy said that while he doesn’t believe the United States should still have mandatory minimum sentences, he added, “I realize not everybody’s willing to go there.”

Lee echoed that, saying while the legislation “doesn’t solve all the problems in our criminal justice system, it goes a long way.” 

—This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. 

Tags Chuck Grassley Criminal justice reform

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