The Obama administration on Monday expressed support for bipartisan Senate legislation that would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, a rare issue where conservatives and liberals agree that the current, overwhelmed system is broken and in desperate need of reform.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the bill is "a good step" toward striking a balance in sentencing such offenders. The legislation would give judges the discretion to give sentences that are less than federal mandatory minimums in some cases. It would eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders, reducing those minimum sentences to 25 years.
The aims of the bill are to make the sentencing system fairer, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs. The federal prison population has exploded since 1980, in part because of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
Yates said the administration has similar goals.
"Because our laws cast too broad a net, we have a hard time distinguishing between the cartel leader who needs to be in prison for a long time from the mope who doesn't," Yates said. "This comes with great costs -- costs to operate our prison system, costs to our communities and families and costs to the public's confidence in our system of justice."
In a display of bipartisanship, the legislation is backed by some of the most powerful senators, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and the top Democrat on the panel, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, are also supporters.
The bill is a compromise. While some of the Democrats wanted to eliminate mandatory minimums, Republicans like Grassley were concerned that reducing them at all could let dangerous criminals go free. To placate some of those conservatives, the Senate legislation would create two new mandatory minimums for domestic violence and charges related to terrorism.
"None of us is going to be happy and we're not going to do better than what we have in front of us," Grassley said at the hearing.
Under the bill, some current inmates could get their sentences reduced by as much as 25 percent by taking part in rehabilitation programs, if they are deemed a low risk to offend again. The bill would also create new programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society.
The bill would require all eligible inmates to undergo regular assessments to determine the likelihood of committing another crime. Inmates deemed to be a low risk for a repeat offense could get their prison sentences shortened by 10 days for every 30 days they participate in a rehabilitation program. These inmates could serve the last part of their sentences in community-based programs in which they would be supervised by authorities.
The bill comes as disparate voices -- from President Barack Obama and the ACLU to the conservative Koch Industries -- agree the current system is broken. In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.
At the same time, national attention has focused on how police and the criminal justice system treat minorities after several high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police in Missouri, Maryland, New York and elsewhere.
In July, Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. He called for changes in the criminal justice system, saying a distinction had to be made between young people doing "stupid things" and violent criminals.
House lawmakers introduced similar legislation to reduce some mandatory minimums this month. It is less comprehensive than the Senate bill, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte has said his panel plans to introduce additional bills.