Prison sentencing reform: Bipartisan efforts make headway in Congress

House Speaker John Boehner says he wants to bring sentencing reform legislation to the floor. And the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who previously resisted sentencing reforms, is now taking a bipartisan approach.

Evan Vucci/AP Photo
President Barack Obama speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. Mr. Obama has been calling on Congress to move on reforms – a call that lawmakers appear to be heeding.

All this week, President Obama has pushed for sentencing reform and other changes to the criminal justice system, bringing it home Thursday with a visit to a federal prison – a first for a sitting US president.

Mr. Obama has been calling on Congress to move on reforms, and surprisingly, lawmakers are in step with the president. It even looks like Congress will move ahead of him, with hopes high in both chambers and in both parties that reform legislation will pass by the end of the year.

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said he “absolutely” wants to bring a bipartisan sentencing reform bill, the SAFE Justice Act, to the floor. “We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, that ... really don’t need to be there,” he told reporters. The speaker cited the expense of housing prisoners who are jailed for “flimsy reasons.”

In the Senate, meanwhile, a bipartisan working group is getting ready to unveil reform legislation after months of effort. It might finish as early as next week, but hopefully before the August recess, Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa told Politico.

That’s a switch for the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the past, Senator Grassley bristled at lawmakers’ attempts to relax sentencing guidelines. He lambasted those who have wanted to reduce mandatory minimum sentences – the tough-on-crime creation of the 1980s and ’90s that has contributed to a federal prison population explosion. He called a bipartisan bill that tackles the issue “ill-conceived” and “dangerous.”

Now that bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, is being worked on by Grassley’s panel, with some elements likely to be combined with parts of another bipartisan Senate bill, the CORRECTIONS Act.

In 2013, Grassley complained that Obama hadn’t called him in four years. But he talked on the phone with the president a few months ago, and their staffs are now in regular contact working on reforms, according to The Hill news organization.

What’s shaping up in Grassley’s panel is a bill in which certain mandatory minimum sentences related to nonviolent drug offenses are reduced, and well-behaved prisoners can earn shorter sentences, according to Politico. The legislation is also likely to allow judges more discretion in sentencing.

Pressure has been mounting in Congress for criminal justice reform, spurred on by events in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

The issue has created some odd bedfellows, from the ultraconservative Koch brothers to civil rights activists.

In Congress, tea party favorites – such as Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah – are at one end of the political spectrum, while progressive Democrats – such as Senate minority whip Richard Durbin of Illinois – are at the other. The two men cosponsored the Smarter Sentencing Act.

African-Americans are also deeply involved, including Rep. Robert Scott (D) of Virginia, cosponsor of the House bill, and Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey. 

“We have so over-arrested our society,” Senator Booker, the former mayor of Newark, N.J., said at a bipartisan event this week.

What brings these lawmakers together are converging concerns about the cost and injustice of “mass incarceration.” 

Since 1980, the federal prison population has octupled, growing from about 25,000 to more than 214,000 inmates. Tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes play a major role in the growth, say criminal justice experts.

“Our justice system ... needs to be about rehabilitation, correction. It needs to be about mercy and justice and empowering people,” Booker said this week.

Indeed, the various bills under consideration in both houses go further than reducing mandatory sentencing, with some aiming to check high rates of recidivism and to prioritize prison space for criminals deemed high-risk and violent.

Grassley’s panel is unlikely to go that far – and probably not as far as Obama would like. Still, Senator Lee is confident that at least sentencing reform will get through Congress this year.

He won’t get everything he wants, he acknowledges in a brief interview, but “we’re going to achieve substantial reforms of minimum mandatory sentences with respect to nonviolent drug offenders, which is the primary focus of our bill.”

“It’s going to pass.”

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