Senators Start Bipartisan Push for Criminal Justice Reform

WASHINGTON (CN) – A bipartisan group of senators reintroduced a sweeping criminal justice reform bill on Wednesday, reviving a legislative package that had broad support but never received a vote in the last Congress.

The legislation would reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and require federal prisons to put in place programs aimed at helping people remain out of prison once released. The bill also expands the exceptions judges can use to sentence someone below a mandatory minimum, allowing them to apply to people with longer, but still non-violent, rap sheets.

It also officially makes the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010’s reduction in the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine convictions retroactive, but includes a new mandatory minimum sentence for people convicted of interstate domestic violence and allows judges to impose harsher sentences on people who committed a crime involving fentanyl.

The portion of the bill dedicated to prison reform limits the use of solitary confinement on juvenile inmates and includes a compassionate release provision that allows people who are older than 60 or terminally ill to be released from prison.

“This bill strikes the right balance of improving public safety and ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “It is the product of much thoughtful deliberation and we will continue to welcome input from stakeholders as we move forward.”

The bill also calls for the creation of a new commission, called the National Criminal Justice Commission, that would “undertake a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system,” according to a summary of the bill.

The commission would be made up of 14 members, with one of its co-chairs being appointed by the president and the other by the Senate majority leader in consultation with the leader of the party opposite the president. Each party’s leadership in the House and the Senate would then appoint two members each, with the remaining four being state and local representatives nominated by the president with input from each party.

The commission would produce a report 18 months after first meeting that would recommend changes to criminal justice procedures and oversight and its budget would be either the savings projected from sentencing reform or $14 million over two years, whichever is smaller.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and ten other senators have signed onto the legislation, including the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

A similar piece of legislation died in the last Senate, in part because Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, opposed it.

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