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New Hurdles to Qualify for Lenient Sentencing

WASHINGTON (CN) — The sponsors of a landmark criminal-justice reform bill on Thursday announced changes to the legislation to make sure violent offenders don't take advantage of measures meant to give leniency to nonviolent criminals.

For nearly a year, a group of Republicans and Democrats have been working to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, but have experienced friction while trying to get it through a bitterly partisan U.S. Senate.

The bill faced criticism that prevented it from going up for a vote before the full Senate body, especially from conservatives who called it too soft on crime.

But new changes to the bill could give it a realistic path to a vote during a time when the Senate is locked in partisan debates over a number of issues, the bill's bipartisan cohort of sponsors said at a press conference Thursday.

"We think this is the most comprehensive, far-reaching criminal justice reform which Congress has seen for decades," said Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and one of the highest profile sponsors of the bill. "And we believe, critically, this bill can pass the United States Senate with both a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans supporting it."

The changes to the legislation don't touch its core achievement of reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. The bill also maintains prison reforms that would allow inmates to receive reduced sentences for participating in programs aimed at minimizing the chances they end up behind bars shortly after leaving.

The "fine-tuned" version does, however, prevent inmates convicted of violent felonies from taking advantage of the retroactive early release initiatives available to nonviolent offenders. The tweaks also give more leniency to minor, nonviolent drug offenders, the senators said.

Supporters of the bill say the changes will bring more lawmakers into the fold and grease its path to the floor, though they acknowledged some opposition still exists.

"Those who will oppose this bill will undoubtedly do so using the argument that this bill will somehow make us less safe," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said at the press conference. "I could not disagree more."

The new legislation boasts 37 sponsors, a motley group that includes partisans as diverse as Lee, who has endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz for president, and Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who some have floated as a possible running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

"Obviously reaching a consensus hasn't been easy, but as you can see, we have a remarkable group of senators supporting the bill," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We believe it truly addresses in a bipartisan way the concerns that have been brought forward."

While Grassley said Thursday he has not yet talked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about bringing the bill to the floor, he was confident the legislation would have enough support to convince McConnell to spend valuable time debating the measure.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who serves as McConnell's majority Whip, echoed Grassley's confidence at the press conference.

"The majority leader is going to look for legislation that enjoys broad bipartisan support, which this bill does, and he's going to look for something we can actually pass and put on the president's desk," Cornyn said.

But potential roadblocks to the legislation exist, and were on display during parts of Thursday's celebratory announcement.

Cornyn said the U.S. House of Representatives is likely to push for a provision in the law that would expand the range of cases in which prosecutors would be required to prove a defendant's state of mind to earn a conviction.

Democrats have fiercely opposed the measure over fears that it would make it harder to prosecute corporations for violating federal regulations.

After Cornyn expressed support for such an idea Thursday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., jumped to the podium to reiterate Democrats' opposition.

The exchange was an example of Whitehouse's point that both Republicans and Democrats made some concessions in the bill, with the hopes that it will be a step towards fixing a system many see as broken.

"I will close by saying that there was a lot left on the cutting room floor through all of these efforts, but I think it's still a hell of a good movie and I look forward to being able to take it to the floor and pass it," Whitehouse said.

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