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Broad spectrum of Senate backs changes in criminal sentencing

Thomas Hawk | Flickr

In what some are calling a historic compromise, a broad spectrum of senators on Thursday announced support for sweeping changes in criminal sentencing laws.

The coaltion formed at a time when many Americans see Congress as dysfunctional, and lawmakers even within the same party at odds over national priorities.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., did say that within that spectrum was “a lot of differences of opinion,” when he commented on the bill from the Senate floor. That followed a news conference where lawmakers — including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee — joined together to introduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.

The group focused on nonviolent drug crimes where no gun or gang activity is involved and decided to give judges in such cases more flexibility in sentencing. Durbin says mandatory-minimums, once seen as a strong deterrent “have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety.”

The sponsors say that with tight budgets and overcrowded prisons the money used to house nonviolent offenders can be better spent, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.  The savings, they say, can be used to fund community policing and other programs to help keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.

Durbin says under the bill, “mandatory minimum requirements can be changed by the judge based on the defendant before him, the crime they committed and what the judge believes to be the best for our society.”

“This compromise represents more than three years of work on criminal justice reform,” Durbin said, noting  that at times he wasn’t sure the bill would ever become reality. Durbin has made the issue one of his signature agenda items for several years. “We knew we had a problem in America, a problem of incarceration. A nation with 5 percent of the world’s population has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.” 

Durbin said the group asked hard questions: “What is going on in American, why are so many people in prison? And has it made us any safer?” Durbin called the legislation a good response to those questions.

Among the bill’s key provisions:

  • Reforms and targets enhanced mandatory minimums for prior drug felons: The bill reduces the enhanced penalties for repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision, but it allows those enhanced penalties to be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies.
  • Broadens the existing safety valve and creates a second safety valve: The bill expands the existing safety valve to offenders with more extensive criminal histories but excludes defendants with prior felonies and violent or drug trafficking offenses unless a court finds those prior offenses substantially overstate the defendant’s criminal history and danger of recidivism. The bill also gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum. But defendants convicted of serious violent and serious drug felonies cannot benefit from these reforms.
  • Reforms enhanced mandatory minimums and sentences for firearm offenses: The bill expands the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for violent firearm offenders to those with prior federal or state firearm offenses but reduces that mandatory minimum to provide courts with greater flexibility in sentencing. The bill also raises the statutory maximum for unlawful possession of firearms but lowers the enhanced mandatory minimum for repeat offenders.
  • Creates new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and certain export control violations: The bill adds new mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and creates a new mandatory minimum for providing weapons and other defense materials to prohibited countries and terrorists.
  • Applies the Fair Sentencing Act and certain sentencing reforms retroactively
  • Provides for prison reform based on the Cornyn-Whitehouse Corrections Act: (sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.) The bill requires the Department of Justice to conduct risk assessments to classify all federal inmates and to use the results to assign inmates to appropriate recidivism reduction programs, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Eligible prisoners who successfully complete these programs can earn early release and may spend the final portion (up to 25 percent) of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.
  • Limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody and improves the accuracy of federal criminal records
  • Provides for a report and inventory of all federal criminal offenses