Senators called for scrapping the federal “three-strikes” life sentence for repeat criminal offenders and to cut minimum sentences for drug crimes, as Democrats and Republicans came together Thursday to propose the broadest overhaul of criminal justice in a generation.
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.
“We believe there are people who are incarcerated today for lengthy sentences and great expense, who frankly should not be in those prisons,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “We think resources spent on those incarcerations are better spent on good law enforcement in our communities.”
The bill was a compromise that didn’t go as far as some advocacy groups had wanted, but now has momentum because it was able to get such strong buy-in from both sides of the aisle. That could help clear a path through the Judiciary Committee and to earn eventual floor time.
“It’s the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican.
Mr. Grassley 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.
Criminal justice reform has been the surprise bipartisan issue of 2015. A top Republican, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, and top Democrat, Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia, have written their own bill in the House, and outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner had said he’d like to see it reach the chamber floor this year.
President Obama has driven the conversation off Capitol Hill, becoming the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. He also called for sentencing changes, saying a distinction had to be made between young people doing “stupid things” and violent criminals.
States have also made big strides in recent years, and members of Congress said they took lessons from those experiments.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised the new bill at the Aspen Institute’s Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday, though she said they’re still going through the legislation to see what changes they would suggest.
“Today’s announcement, frankly, is a great step forward,” she said.
The federal prison population has exploded over the last few decades, in part because of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.
“People are being entangled in the justice system who just shouldn’t be,” said Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network. “And when they come out, they’re better criminals, they’re not better citizens.”
Ms. Harris, whose group has been pushing for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, said she was encouraged by how broad the Senate legislative proposal is. She said the political climate has changed dramatically from the 1980s and ‘90s, when many politicians were afraid to push such an initiative out of a fear they might appear soft on crime.