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Bipartisan support boosts Senate’s new criminal justice push

Senators across the ideological spectrum unveiled a bill that would overhaul sentencing guidelines

WASHINGTON — A group of Senators spanning the ideological spectrum unveiled highly-anticipated legislation on Thursday that would overhaul what they see as a bloated, ineffective and costly criminal justice system.

The lawmakers hailed the bipartisan bill, dubbed the “Sentencing and Corrections Act of 2015” as a landmark achievement in a time when the parties can agree about little else.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who was initially a skeptic of proposals, lauded the legislation as “the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation.”

“We’re here today because a lot of hard work and a strong desire by those of us here to make the Senate work,” he said during a press conference releasing the bill. “There are things in here that each of us like. There are items that each of us would rather do without but this is how the process works here in the Congress — very different perspectives coming together to support a bill that will make a big difference.”

Although the package of reforms does not entirely scrap mandatory minimum sentences, as some advocates had hoped for, it reduces them for some repeat nonviolent offenders while enhancing required sentences for a few select violent crimes. The bill also completely eliminates the federal “three strikes” rule in which felony offenders convicted of a violent crime are automatically given a life sentence if they have two prior offenses. The legislation also includes measures that give judges more discretion in determining punishment for those with past criminal histories and allows eligible federal inmates to earn time off their sentences by completing recidivism reduction programs.

Some of the rules could go into effect retroactively if the legislation becomes law, with 6,500 prisoners currently serving time standing to benefit from reduced sentences.

The lawmakers involved in negotiating the deal included Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chuck Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island as well as Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, John Cornyn of Texas, and Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, as well as Grassley.

Schumer said crafting a compromise with so many different personalities, motivations and issues involved was like “solving a Rubik’s cube.”

“No one on this stage got everything that we wanted but we have solved the puzzle and we are here together,” he said.

Approximately 2.3 million people are currently being held behind bars in the country, giving the United States the ignoble distinction of incarcerating more people than any other country in the world, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The population has expanded dramatically for decades since the 1980s, with 214,000 inmates in the federal prison system.

Advocates seemed relieved to have legislation to discuss at all, after a few months in which progress on the issue appeared to stall, in spite of the unlikely alliance of liberal and conservative groups coming forward to support the cause in recent months, from the conservative Koch Institute to the liberal American Civil Liberties Union.

“The big, big deal is that there will be a bill to discuss,” said Van Jones, a co-founder of #cut50, a group that seeks to reduce the prison population by half in 10 years. “At a time when almost nothing can forward on a bipartisan basis for six almost seven years, this is the little engine that could.”

The proposal’s fate, however, remains unclear. It will likely get a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee this month before it can move onto the full Senate. It’s also unknown how the leadership shake-up in the House of Representatives, which has been working on its own reform bills, will affect the issue.

Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan reform advocacy organization, said she was encouraged that lawmakers took a comprehensive approach to tackling the problem.

“The strength of this bill is its breadth,” she said. “There is always going to be room for next steps, but this is a fantastic first step.” 

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