Senate Panel May Consider Two-Pronged Prison Overhaul as a Compromise

Post Date: November 13, 2013

(CQ Roll Call) — Advocates of an overhaul of the federal prison system are hoping the Senate Judiciary Committee embraces both a reduction in criminal penalties and an expansion of inmate rehabilitation opportunities when the panel marks up a series of corrections-related bills.

The committee, which has increasingly focused its attention on the size and cost of the prison population, is scheduled to begin considering three corrections bills during its business meeting Thursday. The markup, however, is likely to be delayed by a week in keeping with the panel’s custom, and advocates say the delay may allow a fourth bill — which Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has been drafting for weeks — to be added to the agenda.

Two of the bills would make front-end changes to the correctional system by focusing on what Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and other committee members see as the need to reduce the severity of criminal sentences imposed on offenders upon conviction. Many Democrats and some Republicans say the changes would curb the growth in the prison population and dole out fairer punishments without threatening public safety.

By contrast, Cornyn’s pending legislation and another bill sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., both focus on changes to the prison system surrounding inmates’ release. The proposals differ in some ways, according to advocates familiar with them, but both would allow already-incarcerated offenders to earn earlier release dates if they successfully complete rehabilitation programs.

Changes along those lines appear to be more amenable to Republicans than the kind of sentencing reductions favored by Leahy and many Democrats, and advocates are hopeful that the Judiciary Committee will incorporate elements of both approaches to reach a bipartisan compromise.

“What we’ve been hearing for a long time on the Hill now is that there’s going to be a compromise and a package put together,” said Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which prioritizes the sentencing reductions but also supports expanded opportunities for rehabilitation.

“The vision has been that there would be four bills and that there would be a package that would be hammered out,” Gill added.

Whitehouse said during a Bureau of Prisons oversight hearing last week that a corrections overhaul is an area that has “attracted broad and bipartisan interest within our committee,” and further evidence of that appeared Wednesday. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a committee member who has said little about the prison proposals, told CQ Roll Call he is among the Republicans who is open to an overhaul of sentencing laws.

Cost Savings in Focus

Nonpartisan correctional analysts say the sentencing bills are likelier to produce significant cost savings for the prison system over the long term.

One of the bills (S 619), sponsored by Leahy and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would greatly expand judges’ discretion to impose criminal penalties below the mandatory minimum sentences that are set out in statute. The other (S 1410), sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, is narrower and would reduce the statutory minimum penalties for some drug crimes, among other steps.

The Urban Institute issued a report last week finding that sentencing changes such as those contemplated by the Durbin-Lee measure could save taxpayers billions of dollars, with its reduction in mandatory minimums alone accounting for $2.5 billion in savings over 10 years.

“As a package, Durbin-Lee stands to have the greatest impact,” Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said in an interview Wednesday.

But Judiciary Committee Democrats on Friday appeared to acknowledge the ongoing tricky politics surrounding sentencing reductions, when they added Whitehouse’s bill to the agenda for the upcoming markup in a move that caught many advocates by surprise.

Earned-Time Credits

Whitehouse’s bill (S 1675), steers clear of sentencing changes and instead allows inmates to reduce the period in which they are in federal custody by up to 60 days for each year that they participate in an “evidence-based recidivism reduction program.” Inmates would be able to earn credit for as much as 15 percent of their total sentences.

The legislation calls on the Bureau of Prisons to enter into partnerships with faith-based groups and other organizations to provide rehabilitative programming and to issue reports to Congress about the effectiveness of those programs.

The bill takes a similar approach to Cornyn’s proposal, which would similarly allow offenders to qualify for earned-time credits and ask the Bureau of Prisons to enter into partnerships with faith-based and other organizations. But there are key differences, according to an advocate who asked not to be identified.

Perhaps the most notable, the advocate said, is that Whitehouse’s bill would allow inmates at multiple risk levels to qualify for time credits upon successful completion of recidivism programs, while Cornyn’s bill would allow only low-risk offenders to qualify for such credits.