The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved what could be the biggest sentencing reform measure since the get-tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Advocates hope that the bipartisan, 15-5 vote, combined with newfound support from police chiefs and movement on the issue in the House, could lead to passage of the measure in the next several months.
Though not nearly as ambitious as a measure approved by Senate Democrats last year, the proposal would reduce mandatory sentences for drug offenders and eliminate the mandatory “three-strike” life sentence. It would make the changes apply retroactively to those already in prison and also provide a pathway to early release for those who complete prison rehabilitation programs.
The vote comes as President Obama is making criminal justice reform a major theme.
Speaking Thursday at a White House forum on the criminal justice system in which Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck participated, Obama said that criminal justice in the U.S. should be fairer, smarter and more effective.
“We need to spend more time on treatment and not just incarceration as a strategy,” Obama said.
Proponents say there are still significant hurdles for the legislation to overcome. One is an amendment advocated by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to protect people from being convicted for activity they mistakenly thought was legal. Democrats say the amendment would be a “poison pill” that would kill the legislation because they see it as an effort to protect white-collar criminals, including polluters.
There is also a concern that presidential politics will derail the bipartisan momentum of the bill.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a candidate for president who in the past has strongly supported aspects of the bill, came out Thursday against it, saying it would release violent criminals. He said 7,085 prisoners overall would be eligible for release, though each release would have to be individually approved by a judge. Tens of thousands more prisoners are to be released separately under changes in sentencing guidelines by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
While the bill approved Thursday is described by its backers as helping only nonviolent criminals, Cruz disputed that because it covers criminals who have used a firearm in the commission of a crime.
“Thousands of violent drug dealers are being released onto our streets,” Hatch said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the main proponents of the bill, acknowledged the political stakes in letting people out early.
“This is dangerous business for a politician,” he said. “We are going to release people, but we don’t know what they are going to do. We may be held personally accountable. But if we use that as our inspiration we will never touch the sentencing laws.”
Proponents of the bill, who earlier in the week had predicted that only one or two Republicans would vote against it, were disappointed in the five no votes from GOP panel members. While the committee beat back a series of crippling amendments Thursday, they are expected to be offered again when the bill is taken up on the Senate floor.
Advocates of reform were brightened by the introduction of a similar bill in the House Judiciary Committee by its chairman, Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who, like his Senate counterpart, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), has been extremely cautious about changing the sentencing laws.
They also are hopeful that the apparent impending election of Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) as House speaker could provide a means for getting the Goodlatte bill through conservatives in the House. Ryan, however, has not taken a position on the legislation.