Pubdate: Wed, 18 Jan 2017
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2017 The Baltimore Sun Company


[photo] A cell at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.
President Obama toured the prison last week. (Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty

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

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.

President Obama has made a push for broad-based reform of the criminal
justice system in recent days, commuting the sentences of 46 inmates and,
on Thursday, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal

President Obama has made a push for broad-based reform of the criminal
justice system in recent days, commuting the sentences of 46 inmates and,
on Thursday, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal

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."
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