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Senate leaders unveil prison reform measure but prospects are slim

A bipartisan group of Senate leaders on Thursday announced a joint effort to ease unduly long prison sentences and enact other criminal-justice reforms, but chances that Congress will actually act on the issues are slim, given that lawmakers in the House are developing separate proposals.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, introduced by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), top leaders on the Senate Judiciary Committee, calls for shorter prison terms for drug felons and eliminates the so-called "three strikes" rule mandating life sentences. It also seeks to end mass long-term incarceration of prisoners that has led to severe prison overcrowding and skyrocketing costs.

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Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the measure was the result of three years studying criminal justice reform.

"The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than other country on Earth," Durbin said. "Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety."

Federal sentencing guidelines, imposed by Congress on judges to help fight rising crime in the 1980s, took away much of the power of individual judges to grant leniency and treat each defendant separately. In addition, federal criminal code changes have allowed prosecutors to file enhancement charges that in many cases have stretched prison terms to near life sentences and beyond.

Washington for years has been trying to tackle sentencing reform, evident in numerous proposals coming out of Capitol Hill. President Obama recently spoke at a prison strongly advocating sentencing reforms. In addition, Pope Francis in his recent trip to the U.S. visited a Pennsylvania prison and also called for changes.

In the House last year, a task force of lawmakers researching "over-criminalization" issues drafted their own recommendations for streamlining the sentencing process.

In June, a bipartisan team of House members introduced the SAFE Justice Act that would allow judges to sentence defendants as they saw fit, and not by a uniform system ordered by Congress. It also would permit some long-term inmates to seek retroactive reductions in their sentences.

"It's very comprehensive. It's a bill that literally crawls into the nooks and crannies of the criminal code and pulls out reform," said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit organization working for smarter sentencing laws, of the House proposal. "It's thorough and thoughtful."

A bipartisan group of 40 co-sponsors in the House has added their support to the measure. Also endorsing it are a diverse number of advocacy organizations, including the conservative Koch brothers and the more liberal American Civil Liberties Union, and FAMM as well.

Yet even though the measure is seen as the most hopeful in the House at this point, it has yet to be given a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, where the chairman, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), has been given the go-ahead by the House GOP leadership to develop his own plan.

One Capitol Hill source said sentencing changes may not make it out of the House until next year, if then, and then it would have to be reconciled with various Senate versions under discussion, including the latest proposal.

Several interest groups rallied around the new Senate measure.

"This bill shows that Congress has gotten on board with the president, the pope and many others in recognizing the psychological and spiritual pain inflicted by solitary confinement" and other harsh prison sentences, said the Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said the working proposals on Capitol Hill "will bring a greater measure of fairness and racial justice to the federal sentencing structure."

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