President Obama’s top legal adviser gave his support Thursday to a Senate bill on criminal justice reform that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
White House counsel Neil Eggleston said the administration is “particularly encouraged” with the bipartisan support for the legislation, which was introduced last month by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and other lawmakers in both parties.
“Our justice system is too often the final default response for people with mental illness or people who have addictions,” Mr. Eggleston said in an address to the annual Federalist Society gathering in Washington. “The federal inmate population remains heavily weighted toward drug offenders.”
Mr. Obama is waging a campaign to ease sentencing laws for drug offenders. Mr. Eggleston said the federal government spends about $6 billion per year on prisons and that elected officials in both parties see the need to reduce prison populations nationwide.
The White House’s top lawyer, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York City, said tough sentencing laws established during crime and drug epidemics in the 1980s “are not a good match with the challenges that we have today.”
Mr. Eggleston also said that the president is “ramping up” efforts to grant clemency; he has used the power in 89 cases so far over seven years. About 1,500 lawyers nationwide have signed up on a pro bono basis to help prepare clemency petitions for the administration to consider.
The legislation calls for scrapping the federal “three-strikes” life sentence for repeat criminal offenders and to cut minimum sentences for drug crimes.
Some current inmates could see their sentences cut by 25 percent if they are deemed at low-risk of reoffending and take part in rehabilitation programs, and the bill would curtail solitary confinement of young offenders and aid compassionate release of elderly prisoners.
Mr. Grassley has estimated that 6,500 inmates could get their convictions reduced if the measure becomes law.
The bill does not eliminate mandatory minimum sentences entirely, as many criminal justice advocates had hoped, and in fact expands some use of mandatory sentences for firearms and domestic violence offenses.
Violent offenders, sex offenders, members of organized crime and inmates convicted of terrorism charges would also be excluded from the chance at sentence reductions.