President Barack Obama has made this issue a priority. In 2010, he supported and Congress passed the “Fair Sentencing Act” that reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine penalties. In 2013, he and then U.S Attorney General Eric Holder announced a “Smart on Crime” initiative and pushed hard for a “Smarter Sentencing Act” to reform mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and give judges more discretion in determining sentences.
Amid utter congressional deadlock, sentencing reform is the only issue that has cut across partisan bickering to unite normally irreconcilable voices. Reform supports span civil rights advocates, law enforcement organizations, numerous federal judges, conservative groups and even Republican stalwarts, the Koch Brothers. Eighty percent of American voters support ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, according to a February Pew Charitable Trusts poll.
“The cost of incarceration and a growing awareness of the problems with mandatory minimum sentences have created a diverse coalition calling for reforms,” said Kevin Ring, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
In Congress, several relevant bills enjoy broad bipartisan support. Last October, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 by a 15-5 vote.
Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley introduced this legislation, which enjoys 20 Senate co-sponsors. “Our sentencing bill is a compromise that shows that senators from both sides of the aisle can come together to address a serious problem in a reasonable and responsible way,” Grassley said.
Sen. Ted Cruz has become one of the leading opponents of the bill, although he was an original co-sponsor of the Senate’s version of the Smarter Sentencing Act. As amended, it provides “leniency for violent criminals who use guns and gives lighter sentences to criminals already serving time,” he said before the Judiciary Committee.
“That claim is false and does not factually line up with the reality of who is behind bars in our federal prisons,” said Senator Cory Booker in response to critics who say the bill would free violent criminals. “Each case must also go before a federal judge, with the prosecutor present for an independent judicial review.”
Grassley’s measure addresses several stringent sentencing provisions that have helped swell the federal prison population over the past 30 years. It would repeal the “three strikes” law that requires a mandatory life sentence without parole for anyone with a third conviction on drug or violent-felony charges. Instead, the bill creates a mandatory 25-year sentence.
This legislation makes the sentencing reforms approved in the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. Grassley’s bill also includes juvenile-justice reforms and language to help former prisoners transition back into society.
Dee Hunter of Urban News Service contributed to this article.