WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee voted, 13-5, on Thursday to slash mandatory-minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug offenses and to make retroactive a 2010 law reducing the sentences for possession of crack cocaine.
The bill had support from some prominent Republicans, notably Sen. Michael Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, making it highly likely that it will clear the full Senate.
But the committee's top Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, warned sharply against the changes.
"Heroin addiction is spreading in areas that have never seen the problem before," Grassley said. "Given the real world that we live in, why should we vote to cut mandatory-minimum sentences" for drug crimes? "We will be sending messages to judges to give far lower sentences."
Grassley said Republicans would not filibuster the measure on the Senate floor.
But federal judges have been complaining for years about having their hands tied, particularly in drug cases, and being forced to sentence people they regard as minor offenders to lengthy prison terms, sometimes life.
The bill would provide a path to freedom for an estimated 7,000 imprisoned crack users or dealers sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act was approved four years ago. That law corrected huge disparities between possession of crack cocaine, predominantly used by African Americans, and similar amounts of heroin.
The concepts in the bill, though it was watered down in committee to attract Republican votes, are a key feature of Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.'s campaign to increase fairness in sentencing and reduce prison populations. Support from Republicans has focused on the high costs of incarceration.