House Judiciary Introduces Bipartisan Plan On Sentencing Reform



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Momentum for sentencing reform grows as leaders of the House Judiciary Committee introduce a bipartisan bill. But rising violence in some big cities could complicate the legislative forecast.

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In Washington, there is a push to change how the federal government punishes drug offenders. And today there's another important step in that process. The House Judiciary Committee has just introduced a bipartisan plan to change how drug offenders are sentenced in court. Here's one of the bill's sponsors, Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.


JACKSON LEE: We come together today armed not only with the knowledge that our criminal justice system is deeply flawed, but with a commitment to fix these flaws.

MCEVERS: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson broke the news of this new bill in Congress and she is here with us now to talk about it.

And first, Carrie, tell us what would the bill do to change the current system?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's very similar to companion legislation that was introduced just last week in the Senate, Kelly, and it has three main prongs. First, limit mandatory minimums for people convicted under what's known as the federal three strikes law. And this would make a big difference. Many of those offenders are now incarcerated for life. Under this plan, that would be reduced to a maximum of 25 years in prison. Second, the bill would give judges more discretion, more power to tailor punishment in individual cases, to order shorter sentences for many drug offenders who weren't as risky or violent. And finally, it would make retroactive an earlier law that helped people convicted of crack cocaine offenses versus powder cocaine crimes. That's a big deal because the law had a disproportionate racial impact. Sponsors of this House legislature say it could touch more than 6,000 current inmates, 85 percent of them black.

MCEVERS: So less harsh sentences for these offenders. I mean, all of this is happening while we're in the middle of what some would call an epidemic of drug overdoses, especially with the rise of heroin use. Why change the drug laws in the midst of this crisis?

JOHNSON: So about half of the 205,000 inmates in federal prison are there right now for drug offenses - trafficking and the like - but they were convicted under the old tough-on-crime laws passed in the 1980s and '90s when cocaine was reigning supreme. Lawmakers today say they're very concerned about the current drug epidemic with heroin and opioids, and, in fact, this new House bill would add criminal penalties for people possessing fentanyl. That's an additive that's contributed to some overdoses and is very, very addictive. But the House sponsors say they're opposed to creating any new harsh mandatory minimum penalties.

MCEVERS: OK so how likely is it that this will actually become law?

JOHNSON: This is a really unusual bipartisan alliance in both the House and the Senate and therefore gives advocates some reason for hope. But we're heading into an election year and, time, Kelly, is really short.

MCEVERS: And we mentioned this is just one part of a larger push to reform the criminal justice system. In another element, the Justice Department says it will release about 6,000 federal inmates around the end of this month. Some people are concerned that this could lead to more crime. I mean, what are the reformers saying about that?

JOHNSON: Well, to be clear, Kelly, these 6,000 going to be released by the end of the month or early November are released after action from the Sentencing Commission and an individual review of each case by a federal judge. The federal system has about 200,000 inmates. Lots and lots more cycle in and out of the state and local detention centers all over the country. The number is not as big as it might seem at first blush. Still there are some concerns about public safety. I asked Bob Goodlatte, the Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee, about that. Here's what he said.

BOB GOODLATTE: We took special pains to make sure that people who are already in prison serving sentences for violent crimes do not benefit from the early release that some will get who committed nonviolent crimes.

JOHNSON: In other words, the congressman wants to make sure the right people - the nonviolent, low-risk offenders - are the ones who benefit from his legislation.

MCEVERS: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Carrie thank you very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.