New House Bill Could Cut Some Mandatory Life Sentences To 25 Years

· Oct. 8, 2015, 9:03 am

The top Republican and Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee are preparing to introduce a bill Thursday they’re billing as “companion” legislation to the major Senate sentencing overhaul unveiled last week.

Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Ranking Member John Conyers, D-Mich., issued a rare joint statement saying their proposal results from several months of negotiations “to ensure our federal criminal laws and regulations appropriately punish wrongdoers, are effectively and appropriately enforced, operate with fairness and compassion, protect individual freedom … and do not waste taxpayer dollars.”

Key provisions in the proposal, obtained by NPR in advance of a formal news conference, suggested that the language mostly tracks the Senate legislation. If passed, the bill would reduce mandatory life sentences for drug offenders convicted under the “three strikes” laws to 25 years behind bars. The changes would apply to people already in prison — but in a change from the Senate counterpart, prisoners who have certain prior violent felony convictions would not be eligible.

The lawmakers said they expect to propose other legislative changes to the asset forfeiture system and to prisons and juvenile justice, in the coming weeks.

The plan by the House members came as something of a surprise for advocates following the issue. Goodlatte had previously said he would address parts of the justice system piecemeal, with asset forfeiture coming first.

“Nobody expected this all would be coming so quickly,” said Holly Harris of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a group that pushes for reform at the state and federal level. “I wonder if there was an effort in D.C. to tamp down expectations.”

Harris said the Senate plan released last week is “far more comprehensive” than anticipated and the outlines for action in the House Judiciary Committee are aggressive too. “If all of that gets done this year, it’ll put me out of business,” she added.

Jeremy Haile, who’s long advocated for changes to the justice system, called the new plan “substantial” and “salutary.” Haile, of the DC-based nonprofit The Sentencing Project, pointed out that federal courts usually don’t have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes like assault or armed robbery.

So, by definition, most violent offenses are handled in state or local courts, which require state-by-state legislative changes. The bulk of the current and future inmates who will be touched by the legislation are engaged in drug-related crimes, he said.

Criminal justice policy once represented a third rail of U.S. politics. But over the past few years, in a movement led by states such as Texas and Georgia, political conservatives have advocated for releasing nonviolent offenders who pose little risk to public safety and for spending more money on reentry programs and alternatives to incarceration. An unusual left-right group, the Coalition for Public Safety, has been pressing for reforms. Its members include Koch Industries and the ACLU.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah made justice reform a centerpiece of his remarks at the Heritage Foundation Wednesday: “For conservatives it is not a questions of whether to punish but how to punish.” Lee added that the record declines in violent crime were not “simply a function of locking up more offenders.”

That point is already the source of debate inside Congress and throughout the law enforcement community. FBI statistics suggest violent crime nationwide dropped in 2014, but several big cities have experienced an increase in homicides, from Baltimore and Chicago to St. Louis. The U.S. Justice Department held a crime summit in Washington this week to bring together police chiefs, mayors and others from 20 cities to discuss ways to reduce the violence.

One element that Harris, of the Justice Action Network, said was not yet getting enough attention was providing programs and doing more to incentivize employers to hire inmates when they are released from prison.

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