WASHINGTON (CN) - Senate Democrats promoted a bipartisan effort to reform sentencing policies at a prison oversight hearing Wednesday, while some Republicans remained wary that proposed reforms could inject leniency into the criminal justice system.
"One way to reduce prison crowding is to build more prisons," Sen. Chuck Grassley suggested during the Senate Judiciary Committee's oversight hearing on the Bureau of Prisons.
The Iowa Republican said he was skeptical of the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill submitted by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would modernize drug-sentencing policies by giving federal judges more discretion in convicting non-violent offenders.
"Crime rates are now at their lowest level in 50 years," Grassley said. "Many people have earned the right to be proud of these results. At the same time, we must remember that these were hard-won gains, and I'm concerned we're hearing many of the voices that started heading us toward the greater crimes that we saw back in the 1960s."
Grassley warned that retroactively reducing prisoner sentences, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and pursuing fewer drug prosecutions would not save money and would create public safety concerns.
"Reducing prisoners' sentences will bring prisoners out in the streets sooner," he said. "The deterrent effect of imprisonment would be reduced. Many so-called non-violent drug offenders happen to have violent records. Some of these offenders will commit additional crimes. Somehow cost analyses of the Bureau of Prisons do not include costs to victims."
Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels Jr. told lawmakers Wednesday that his agency faces many of the same problems it did in September, when he testified before the committee's House of Representatives counterpart.
"Since 1980 our population has exploded," Samuels said. "In 1980, we had approximately 26,400 inmates in our care, and 10,000 staff to manage that population in only 41 institutions at that time. As of to date, our population is at 219,000. We have approximately 38,000 staff. That is an increase of 830 percent."
With a booming prison population comes a hefty burden on the American taxpayer, who picks up the $29,000 annual tab to jail each inmate.
Lee called the current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences "irrational and wasteful" when he and Durbin introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act in August.
"By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing policies," Lee said in a statement.
The Public Safety Enhancement Act, the House's attempt at curbing prison crowding and lowering recidivism rates, focuses on recidivism by offering streamlined offender risk-and-needs assessments, and risk-reduction incentives and rewards.
Grassley and Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama also expressed concern that the federal government is paying to house foreign inmates, who make up 25 percent of the prison population. Samuels explained that the bureau has treaty systems with the international community to deport foreign inmates so they can serve their time in their home countries.
The treaty system makes up a small portion of the bureau's plan to combat overcrowding - Samuels said many prisons have "triple bunking - and the 20 percent recidivism rate.
Echoing his September testimony, Samuels said the agency has a prisoner-incentive plan that encourages inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs that could earn them sentence reductions.
Rehabilitation starts when inmates enter the system and continues throughout their imprisonment, he said.
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, "My state has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but we also have one of the lowest crime rates. Sometimes people joke, 'we're not just the land of 10,000 lakes, we're the land of 10,000 treatment centers.'"
Klobuchar joined Durbin and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in calling for a more common sense approach to sentencing and rehabilitation, while Grassley and Sessions staunchly defended the zero-tolerance modus operandi of Congress 30 years ago.
"I'm looking at it now and realizing it was a bad mistake," said Leahy, who voted for mandatory minimum sentences. "I'm committed to addressing sentencing reform this year and I'm pleased by the fact that both Republicans and Democrats are joining me in that effort. It's a problem that Congress created, but it's also a problem Congress can fix."
Sticking to his guns, Sessions said that "not that many people commit murder. Not that many people commit rapes. And the more of those that are in jail, the fewer you'll have."
Grassley said he'd consider sentence reform, specifically citing the release of elderly and sick prisoners, but wouldn't stand for leniency.
"But leniency for the sake of leniency is ill-advised," he said. "It's an especially bad idea as crime rates are rising as we've seen in the last few years."
State prison officials from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, a criminal justice professor from Iowa, and representatives of the Urban Institute and Keswick Advisors also testified at the two-hour hearing.
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