House bill would cut prison time for some offenders
Washington — In a rare move for the bitterly partisan House, Republicans and Democrats have come together to propose major legislation that would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders.
The House bill comes just a week after a bipartisan coalition of senators introduced a similar bill to give judges the discretion to give sentences that are less than federal mandatory minimums. While the House bill is not as broad as the Senate legislation, the two bills may foreshadow some of the most sweeping changes to sentencing guidelines in decades.
Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee announced the legislation at a news conference Thursday. Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte, the chairman of the panel, said he hopes to move the legislation soon and believes it has “a tremendous amount of interest” among other members of the House.
Like the Senate bill, the House legislation would eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders, reducing those mandatory minimum sentences to 25 years. It would also reduce mandatory sentences for two-time offenders. The legislation would apply those sentencing reductions retroactively, except for offenders who have prior serious violent felony convictions that resulted in a prison sentence of greater than 13 months.
Goodlatte said the changes in the bill would “ensure our federal laws effectively and appropriately punish wrongdoers, work as efficiently and fairly as possible and do not waste taxpayer dollars.”
The House legislation will deal only with sentencing reform, but Goodlatte said the panel plans to introduce additional bills soon on other criminal justice issues, including prison and re-entry reform and youth and juvenile justice issues. He did not offer specifics on those bills.
Also supporting the legislation are the panel’s top Democrat, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, and fellow committee members Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, Judy Chu, D-Calif., Raul Labrador, R-Idaho and Mike Bishop, R-Mich.
Jackson-Lee said criminal justice reform has languished in Congress for many years.
“We know that with the introduction of this legislation we’ve now made a singular statement that 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 in here the United States,” she said.
The legislation comes as about 6,000 federal inmates serving sentences for drug crimes are set for early release next month under a cost-cutting measure intended to reduce the nation’s prison population. The releases scheduled for November are among the first of what could eventually be tens of thousands of eligible releases. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted last year to retroactively apply substantially lower recommended sentences for those convicted of drug-related felonies.
Goodlatte said he has concern about that mass release and the potential for violent criminals to be freed from prison. He said the commission’s action is an impetus for action on the legislation.
“It does demonstrate why Congress needs to act in this area,” Goodlatte said.
The bill also comes as disparate voices — from President Barack Obama and the ACLU to the conservative Koch Industries — agree the current system is broken. At the same time, national attention has focused on how police and the criminal justice system treat minorities after several high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police in Missouri, Maryland, New York and elsewhere.
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. He praised the Senate bill after it was introduced and challenged Congress to “put a meaningful criminal justice reform bill on my desk before the end of this year.”
Since 1980, the federal prison population has exploded, 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.