BY MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) — A bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation on Thursday to give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders, a renewed push to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system after objections from some conservatives and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
Legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last November would allow some nonviolent drug offenders to get reduced prison sentences and give judges greater discretion in sentencing. The legislation had rare bipartisan support in the Senate and backing from President Barack Obama, but it stalled earlier this year when Cruz and other conservatives suggested that it could let violent offenders out of prison.
The bill's sponsors, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, denied that charge. But they have revised the bill anyway, hoping to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that it has enough support to pass the Senate in a contentious election year.
The reworked bill announced Thursday would still give judges discretion to give lesser sentences than federal mandatory minimums and eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders. It also would create programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society.
To address opponents' concerns about violent criminals, the new version would drop language that could have allowed reduced sentences for criminals who had possessed a firearm. It would also prohibit retroactive sentence reductions for violent felons and establish stronger sentences for offenses involving the opioid drug fentanyl.
Those changes did not sway one of the bill's most vocal critics, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who issued a statement saying the new bill only raises more questions.
"It is the victims of crime who will bear the costs of this dangerous experiment in criminal leniency and every community's law enforcement officers who must deal with that cost daily," Cotton said.
A spokesman for Cruz did not respond to a request for comment on the revised legislation.
In a news conference, Republicans and Democrats backing the bill said that they had picked up support from four additional GOP senators: Mark Kirk of Illinois, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Steve Daines of Montana and Thad Cochran of Mississippi. They said they now have 37 Senate sponsors, which they hope is enough to convince McConnell to move the bill.
"We believe, critically, this bill can pass the United States Senate with both a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans supporting it," said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
In addition to Cornyn, the bill is backed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, who long opposed any reductions in federal mandatory minimums but worked for years on the legislation. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, is also a supporter.
The aim of the legislation is to reduce overcrowding in the nation's prisons, save taxpayer dollars and give some nonviolent offenders a second chance while keeping the most dangerous criminals in prison. Disparate voices – from Obama and the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Industries – have said the system is broken after years of "tough-on-crime" laws and have backed the Senate bill.
In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.
Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries, immediately issued a statement of support for the revised bill.
"We believe these reforms will help remove barriers to opportunity for the least advantaged, keep our communities safer and allow our brave law enforcement officers to focus on serious, violent offenders, which will improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they protect and serve," Holden said.
The House Judiciary Committee has approved several separate criminal justice bills, with the eventual goal of moving them separately or together on the House floor. Unlike McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said the legislation is a priority. But he hasn't given a timeline for when it will move.
After conservatives balked, both Cornyn and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., conceded that the legislation doesn't have to move this year. But supporters have acknowledged that Obama's strong support could be beneficial. The next president may not be so enthusiastic.
One of the bill's supporters is conservative Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a former federal prosecutor. He criticized fellow Republicans who have opposed the legislation, arguing that overhaul will make the country safer.
"I support this not in spite of my status as a conservative, but because of it," he said.
(Photo Courtesy of the Hartford Courant)