- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bipartisan leadership from the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday introduced “companion” legislation meant to match the Senate’s recent efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system.

The bill introduced focuses on sentencing reform, axing the federal “three-strikes” life sentence for repeat drug offenders and providing more room for discretion by judges in the sentencing of offenders who commit nonviolent crimes.

While lawmakers touted that the bill, unlike the Senate version, does not include any new mandatory minimum sentences, it could mean longer prison sentences for some. Under the proposal, individuals convicted of trafficking fentanyl, a drug that has recently shown up in batches of heroin linked to fatal overdoses, would face sentences up to five years longer.

“We want to make sure the sentences are fair and just, but we also want to make sure that we are not releasing violent criminals back onto our streets,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.

Both the House and the Senate legislation that was introduced last week by Sen. Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican, would allow for the reduction of mandatory life sentences for those already behind bars. However the House legislation would set strict parameters on those eligible, preventing the retroactive reductions from applying to those convicted of a “serious violent felony” that results in a sentence longer than 13 months.

Lawmakers have praised criminal justice reform as a way to cut prison costs while refocusing efforts to reduce crime by placing more emphasis on drug rehabilitation or community policing.

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.

The estimated cost of incarceration across the country currently stands at $80 billion annually.

Overall, lawmakers estimated that 6,000 current inmates could see reduced sentences from the bill.

“Criminal justice reform has languished in the shadows of legislative activity for many years,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat. “We know that with the introduction of this legislation, we’ve now made a singular statement in joining with the Senate, we will have an opportunity to have the president sign a criminal justice reform initiative that will help millions of families here in the United States.”

Other portions of the bill would reduce from 15 to 10 years the mandatory minimums for individuals convicted of gun possession offenses and from 25 to 15 years the mandatory minimums for individuals convicted of possessing firearms in the course of committing drug trafficking offenses.

Mr. Goodlatte said he expects the committee to introduce additional bills in the coming weeks that will address other portions of criminal justice reform, including legislation to address policing practices such as civil asset forfeiture.

Sentencing reform advocates praised the mandatory minimum sentence reductions included in the bill, but critiqued the restrictive eligibility criteria.

“Limited retroactivity isn’t fair or right, and it also will not help cut prison costs and save money for law enforcement, who need those funds to prevent crime and restore victims,” said Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Experts with the Drug Policy Alliance said the introduction of the House bill, in conjunction with the Senate proposal, represents the best chance yet of widespread criminal justice reform. However they took issue with the inclusion of enhancements that would add result in longer sentences for trafficking of fentanyl.

“This is not the legislation we would have drafted, but we are encouraged that we now have bills in the House and Senate that tackle similar issues and that move the ball down the field for sentencing reform,” said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We are more optimistic than ever that a bill will land on the president’s desk.”

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