WASHINGTON — Senate conservatives and liberals on Thursday united behind an overhaul of the criminal justice system, a rare bipartisan agreement that would allow some nonviolent drug offenders to get reduced prison sentences and give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
The legislation, years in the making, comes as disparate voices have spoken as one in saying the current system is broken, from President Barack Obama to the ACLU to the conservative Koch Industries. At the same time, national attention has focused on how police and criminal justice treat minorities after several high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police in several states, including Missouri and Maryland.
The legislation announced Thursday would give judges the discretion to give sentences below the mandatory minimum for nonviolent drug offenders. Some current inmates could get their sentences reduced by as much as 25 percent by taking part in rehabilitation programs, if they are deemed a low risk to offend again. The bill would also create new programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society.
Among the senators' goals: Make the sentencing system more fair, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs.
Since 1980, the federal prison population has exploded, in part because of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Then, it was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.
"This historic reform bill addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
The bill would eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent offenders, excluding violent offenders, sex offenders, inmates convicted of terrorism charges and some others.
The package will have some momentum in the Senate. It was negotiated by some of the most powerful senators, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and the top Democrat on the panel, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, were also lead negotiators.
At a news conference Thursday, the senators congratulated each other for a bipartisan compromise at a time when such agreements are rare.
"This is the way the system is supposed to work," Cornyn said.
At the same time, the senators acknowledged they weren't sure if such a compromise would be acceptable in the more polarized House. A House Judiciary Committee spokeswoman said the panel expects to introduce legislation soon.
In July, Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. He called for changes in the criminal justice system, saying a distinction had to be made between young people doing "stupid things" and violent criminals.
On Thursday night, Obama praised the legislation, saying it "would provide a historic step forward in addressing these systemic problems ..." He noted "the movement to improve our criminal justice system has surely attracted strange bedfellows" and challenged "the broad and impressive bipartisan coalition that created the bill" to do what's necessary to "put a meaningful criminal justice reform bill on my desk before the end of this year."
The bill would require all eligible inmates to undergo regular assessments to determine the likelihood of committing another crime. Inmates deemed to be a low risk for a repeat offense could get their prison sentences shortened by 10 days for every 30 days they participate in a rehabilitation program. These inmates could serve the last part of their sentences in community-based programs in which they would be supervised by authorities.
The bill would reduce enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders. However, the penalties would still be applied to offenders with prior convictions for violent and serious drug felonies.
The measure also limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody.
Republicans backing the bill include Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is running a longshot campaign for president.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, is also backing the bill, as are Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
"All of these things are rightfully bubbling up and I am happy to see unity from everyone from the Koch brothers to folks on the left, all joining together to say 'enough is enough,' " Booker said after the deal was announced.
Off Capitol Hill, supporters of reform praised the bill and said it appeared to be a reasonable compromise.
"These reforms will help remove barriers to opportunity for the least advantaged, enhance public safety, reduce government spending, reduce incarceration rates, limit unnecessary government infringement on individual liberties and help people turn their lives around," said Koch Industries' Mark Holden.
"The bill offers many promising reforms that will reduce mass incarceration and its devastating effects on our country: changing sentences retroactively for drug offenses, increasing support for anti-recidivism programs, limiting the use of solitary confinement for young people, providing for the compassionate release of elderly prisoners," said Anthony D. Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.
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