The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday gave its imprimatur to the Smarter Sentencing Act, approving the bill and sending it on to a Senate floor vote. The bill is designed to reduce the federal prison population and decrease racial disparities and, if passed by Congress, would mark the biggest federal sentencing reform in decades.
The act was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of senators from across the political spectrum, including Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
"The tide has turned against punitive drug policies that destroy lives and tear families apart," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites, there is now consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers."
The sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) also welcomed the bill's progress, but said that it was not happy with some changes included as the bill made its way through the committee.
"We strongly support the underlying bill; however, we have deep concerns about changes made during markup. These changes include new mandatory minimums for domestic violence and sexual abuse that are unjustified and opposed by the very victims they are supposed to protect," the group noted.
"Although FAMM would prefer the total repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, this bill is a necessary compromise that will help address many of the drivers of our exploding prison populations. The reform package is bipartisan, reasonable, and will save taxpayers billions of dollars by locking up fewer nonviolent drug offenders for shorter periods of time. It also focuses on over-criminalization, a monster that no one has been able to get a handle on, but one that must be brought under control."
While the bill has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, companion legislation is languishing in the Republican-controlled House. House Bill 3382, sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and 15 cosponsors, is currently before the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). Advocates are calling on Goodlatte, who helped establish a House Over-Criminalization Task Force last year, to move on the Smarter Sentencing Act.
"Seven of the 10 members of the Over-Criminalization Task Force currently support mandatory minimum sentencing reform, and all of the Task Force members have shown interest in getting a handle on our enormous criminal code," said FAMM's Julie Stewart. "The interest is there, and the time is right -- this is something that Congress could actually do this year."
The favorable Senate Judiciary Committee vote -- it passed 13-5 -- came even as federal prosecutors came out in opposition to it. In a Monday letter to Attorney General Holder, the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys opposed reforms to mandatory minimums.
"We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction," the organization said. "Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving."
That sparked a tough rebuke from the Drug Policy Alliance.
"It is disgraceful that prosecutors continue to defend a criminal justice system that is profoundly racially unjust and cruel," said Piper. "While support for major reform is growing in both political parties, many prosecutors are still living in the dark ages."