A bill reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes passed a U.S. Senate panel on Thursday with support from both major parties.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is expected to earn broad support in the full Senate, representing a compromise between senators staunchly for reform and more conservative lawmakers.
President Barack Obama said he expects the bill to reach his desk before the end of the year, although passage through the Senate and the House may be delayed by other, more pressing priorities.
The legislation is supported by organizations sponsored by the Koch brothers, libertarian businessmen known for backing their political beliefs with money, as well as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley. It would be most forgiving to federal drug offenders, who represent half of all federal prisoners.
It would also reduce sentences of inmates with no criminal background and those accused of violent crimes that injured no one. However, "serious" and "violent" crimes remain undefined. Some young prisoners could also receive parole instead of life sentences, and solitary confinement for juveniles would be limited.
The bill has been criticized for bypassing judicial rulings and instead creating "a cookie-cutter approach (that) too often gets in the way of justice," according to Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In some cases, prisoners themselves could help reduce their own sentences. Elderly and terminally ill inmates could petition to be released early, while inmates with pre-2010 crack cocaine sentences could apply for reductions in their prison terms. Inmates considered “low” or “medium” risk could also reduce their sentences by participating in rehabilitation programs.
"It’s amazing the '180' this country has done from the failed policies of the 1980s to now," Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network, told Reuters. The three strikes law of the 1980s and 1990s, largely developed by then-President Bill Clinton and current Vice President Joe Biden, gave automatic life sentences to anyone convicted of three "serious" offenses. Many states have repealed similar laws.
The legislation would also reduce a “life sentence” to 25 years.
Still, no minimum sentences would be eliminated altogether. In fact, more minimum sentences would be added if the bill passes, notably to interstate cases of fatal domestic violence and weapons sales to certain countries and terrorist groups.
One in three U.S. adults have a criminal record and no country imprisons more of its population than the United States, which has more than 2.2 million behind bars.
Next month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission will result release of about 6,000 federal inmates early as a result of an early reduction in the penalty for crack cocaine offenses.