Conyers, Bishop introduce sentencing reform bill

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A bipartisan bill in Congress would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for prior drug felons and certain firearm offenders — the first in a series of criminal justice reform bills expected in the several weeks, two key lawmakers said Thursday.

The culmination of two years of work, House Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit, unveiled the legislation Thursday at the U.S. Capitol with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, who chairs the panel. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, is also a sponsor.

“We have this rare coming together of bipartisanship that makes a real difference,” Conyers said.

“I’m confident that we can all work together to move this legislation through the Congress. It’s a signal moment for me in our work on the House Judiciary Committee, and we want to get it to the president’s desk as soon as possible for his signature.”

Goodlatte said sentencing reform would be the “best test” for demonstrating bipartisanship as part of a broader criminal justice reform package that will be rolled out in the coming weeks.

“There are tough issues involved. We want to make sure that sentences are fair and just, but we also want to make sure that, for example, we’re not releasing violent criminals back onto our streets,” Goodlatte said.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 would reduce the mandatory minimum penalty for a third serious drug offense from life imprisonment to 25 years and cut the 20-year mandatory minimum for a second serious drug offense from 20 to 15 years.

Both sentencing revisions could be applied retroactively, with the exception of offenders with serious prior violent felony convictions that led to prison sentences of more than 13 months, according to a summary of the bill.

Judges would be allowed to sentence certain drug offenders below the mandatory five-year minimums, excluding offenders with serious prior convictions. Judges would also have the discretion to sentence certain offenders below mandatory 10-year minimums, with exceptions including cases in which the offender used violence or a firearm.

The legislation also calls for enhancing sentences for trafficking heroin “cut” with fentanyl, a powerful and addictive opioid.

The bill clarifies that judges may apply enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for using a firearm in a crime involving drugs or violence only in cases involving recidivist offenders previously convicted for such an offense. The enhanced mandatory minimum would be reduced from 25 to 15 years and, in some cases, the reduction could be applied retroactively.

The legislation raises the statutory minimum sentence for unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon from 10 to 15 years.

Bishop, a former prosecutor who sits on the Judiciary Committee, described the bill as a fiscally and socially responsible proposal that “not only protects our communities from violent criminal offenders, but also provides flexible sentencing for those who deserve it.”

Conyers said a task force that he created with Goodlatte in 2013 motivated the legislation and influenced its contents.

The bill differs in some ways from legislation introduced last week by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and others in the Senate, Goodlatte said. “We took special pains to make sure people already in prison for violent crimes do not benefit from the early release that some will get who committed violent crimes,” he said.

The committee is also working on bills to reform policing strategies and prisons, lawmakers said.

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