A bipartisan push to reduce the number of low-level drug offenders in prison is gaining momentum in Congress, but proposals may disappoint advocates hoping to slash the mandatory minimum sentences that are seen as chiefly responsible for overcrowding in the nation's detention facilities.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) surprised advocates Thursday by saying he strongly supported holding a vote on a prison reform bill similar to one sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a moderate Republican from Wisconsin. The measure has been languishing in the House Judiciary Committee.
At the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee is nearing completion of a compromise bill that, like Sensenbrenner's, would change the way drug offenders are sentenced and provide a pathway to early release for those already in prison.
Under both proposals, thousands of prisoners serving long terms because of a disparity in the nation's cocaine laws — including many African Americans — would be eligible to apply for immediate release on a case-by-case basis. Many more drug offenders would be eligible for early release if they completed educational and drug treatment programs, according to lawmakers and aides familiar with the bills.
The bills, in part, seek to correct perceived injustices of past tough-on-crime laws under which those convicted of possessing crack cocaine, whose use was more common among African Americans, were subject to sentences far longer than those for possession of the drug's powder form, favored more by whites.
But some advocates are disappointed at the approach to mandatory minimums emerging in the Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has dug in his heels against the sweeping changes approved by the committee when it was controlled by Democrats last year.
The committee had voted to cut 10-year mandatory minimums for drug offenses in half and five-year mandatories to two, but the bill failed on the Senate floor.
"I don't think we need to stick with what we did 30 years ago, but those sentences cut down on crime quite a bit," Grassley said in an interview.
Grassley and other senators outlined what one called an "arcane, complex" approach being developed at Grassley's insistence that would seek to match mandatory minimum sentences to the particular circumstances of each crime or combination of crimes.
"Grassley does not want to be rolled on this," said one senator involved in the negotiations.
Julie Stewart, president of Washington-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the Grassley approach was shortsighted and would continue to take discretion out of the hands of judges.
"Because of a generational shift in attitudes to these issues, we have the best opportunity in over two decades to do something, and it shouldn't be thrown away on something that's not significant enough to have a major impact on the number of people going to prison and the length of time each one of those is serving," Stewart said.
Senators involved in the backroom negotiations had mixed views of what the end result would be.
"We have lost some ground," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a sponsor of the more sweeping approach approved in committee last year. "It's a negotiation with Sen. Grassley."
Other senators were more positive.
"I think we will reform mandatory minimums in a significant way," said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the other chief sponsor of the bill the committee approved last year.
"It is a necessary compromise," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). "It's too early to say that what we are trying to do on mandatory minimums will be watered down."
Both bills would expand the number of situations in which a judge could override a mandatory minimum requirement.
Stewart said the Sensenbrenner approach to mandatory minimums was more to her liking. Although less sweeping than the bill the Senate committee approved last year, it would greatly narrow the number of offenses eligible for mandatory minimums and would cut mandatory life sentences for drug crimes to 35 years.
"The bill is brilliant in its simplicity," she said. "Even though it doesn't repeal mandatory minimum sentences, it lets courts give longer sentences to violent kingpins and shorter sentences to addicts and low-level offenders."