WASHINGTON (CN) - The Senate Judiciary Committee heard few objections Monday to proposed legislation that would reduce prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the bill this month with strong bipartisan support. President Obama has said he wants such a bill on his desk this year, and promised to sign it if it gets there.
Prison reform has become a major public issue as prisons nationwide are bursting at the seams, costing public money, and showing little evidence of making headway in rehabilitation or reducing recidivism.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told the committee that the costs of unfair prison sentences hurt many more people than the prisoners who serve the time.
"Too many children have parents in prison. One in 27 children - one in nine African-American children has a parent behind bars. And this cuts deeply into our society," Yates said.
The U.S. prison population has exploded by nearly 800 percent since 1980. Nearly half of federal prisoners are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That agency sucks up a quarter to one-third of the Department of Justice budget, Yates said.
The money would be better spent on re-entry programs to help prisoners become productive citizens after release, and recidivism prevention programs, she added.
But the bill faces stiff resistance and criticism from law enforcement agencies and associations.
Some critics say it will lead to spikes in crime and threats to public safety. The National District Attorney's Association said the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will undermine their ability to elicit cooperation from defendants and prosecute dangerous drug traffickers.
Its proponents, including Yates, disagree. Since the Department of Justice implemented its Smart on Crime initiative in 2013 - which included sentencing reform for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders - defendants have cooperated and pled guilty at the same rate, she said.
Despite the criticism, Yates said, the bill will leave all mandatory minimum sentences in place for violent crimes, but will reduce some of the harshest drug-related mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders.
It would expand the "safety valve" that gives judges leeway to dole out sentences below the mandatory minimum to people with nonviolent criminal histories.
An expanded safety valve would have helped witness Debi Campbell get out of prison early. Campbell, of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, spent 17 years of a nearly 20-year sentence in prison for a nonviolent drug offense.
Campbell said critics of the bill focus too much on violent criminals, who won't be eligible for reduced mandatory minimum sentences under the legislation. Those are not the people she met in prison, she said.
"I expected, you know, the dregs of society," Campbell said in an interview, adding that she was scared no one in prison would be like her.
To her surprise, "everybody's just like us," she said of her fellow inmates: sisters, mothers, grandmothers and white-collar criminals.
"I mean, all of us made a poor choice, and that one poor choice, you know the consequences are huge," she said. "Anybody can make a bad choice."
Campbell says she fell into meth use with her husband and became addicted. She started selling the drug to support her family and her habit.
Her four daughters grew up in foster care while she served her time. The prison allowed her 15 minutes of phone time with her children per day.
Campbell told the committee she needed to go to prison because it was a wake-up call. She sobered up in prison and started work toward a bachelor's degree.
But she said in an interview that she believes that three years, or five years max, "to be fair," would have done the trick. What she needed when she got busted for selling meth was drug treatment, she said.
She said she would like the bill to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, but says it's a good place to start.
The bill would retroactively apply sentence reductions for crack offenders, allowing those sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act took effect to have their sentences reduced.
That law aimed to reduce sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine. People typically received longer sentences for crack offenses and were overwhelmingly African-American.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will allow the original prosecutors and judges to revisit and reduce sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders already serving time.
Resentencing will depend on the person's criminal history, circumstances and background, Yates said.
"We will carry out retroactive provisions in a thoughtful manner," she told the committee, saying the Department of Justice is committed to ensuring public safety throughout the process.
A few panelists expressed concern about the legislation. Steven Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, said the retroactive component of the bill will destabilize the criminal justice system and could hurt communities.
He said this is not the time to take away tools from prosecutors who are trying to dismantle drug trafficking organizations.
Retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act could affect up to 6,500 crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced before the law took effect.
The law would retroactively reduce from 15 to 10 years mandatory minimum sentences for some gun possession offenses by people with a criminal history, and from 25 to 15 years for gun possession during drug trafficking.
It also will reduce mandatory life without parole for a third drug or violent felony offense to a mandatory 25-year sentence, and reduce 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for second drug or violent felony offenses to 15 years, both retroactively.
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