New Momentum Seen for Effort to Overhaul Drug Sentencing

Post Date: January 24, 2014

(CQ) — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called on Congress Thursday to pass bipartisan legislation that would reduce criminal penalties for some drug offenders, even as Senate Judiciary Committee aides expressed new optimism about the bill’s chances after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations.

In a video message taped before a possible Judiciary Committee markup of the bill next week, Holder urged lawmakers to back the proposal (S 1410), co-sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbinof Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party-backed Republican. The legislation “could ultimately save our country billions of dollars in prison costs while keeping us safe,” Holder said in his statement.

The bill is aimed at reducing criminal penalties that some lawmakers and many criminal justice advocates say are excessive, particularly for low-level offenders, and have become a major factor in the growing size and cost of the federal correctional system.

The legislation would reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and give judges discretion to impose lighter penalties than those currently required for certain drug offenders. It also would allow crack cocaine offenders to seek lighter penalties under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (PL 111-220), even if their convictions pre-dated that statute, which reduced the disparity in criminal sentences between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

“I look forward to working with members of both parties to refine and advance these proposals in the days ahead,” Holder said, suggesting that Judiciary Committee action on the legislation is imminent.

Momentum behind the proposal appeared to falter late last year, as the committee repeatedly delayed a markup. Durbin has faced hesitation on the plan from some committee Democrats, such as Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles E. Schumer of New York, while Lee has encountered resistance from some panel Republicans, particularly ranking member Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who has expressed concern that such legislation might lead to an increase in crime.

But there are growing signs that a bipartisan agreement may be within reach, possibly in time for a scheduled Jan. 30 markup. Senate Judiciary Republicans such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Sessions of Alabama are seen as open to the legislation, while most panel Democrats are expected to be supportive.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., a co-sponsor of the bill, said last week that he is “encouraged by the progress being made to reach a bipartisan and comprehensive compromise on sentencing reform that includes important changes to mandatory minimum sentences.”

Committee aides in recent days have sounded similarly optimistic, and staff members and outside advocates alike said it is possible President Barack Obama will attempt to call attention to the proposal by mentioning it in his State of the Union address Tuesday.

Holder, who will testify before the Judiciary Committee for a Justice Department oversight hearing the day after the speech, noted in his video message Thursday that Obama recently entered the sentencing debate by commuting the sentences of eight crack cocaine offenders “who were sentenced under the outdated sentencing regime.” Read more