For more than a year, some members of Congress talked about the need to reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population, but they have nothing to show for it. Senators have introduced three bipartisan bills, including “front end” reforms that would reduce or eliminate long mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and “back end” fixes like increasing credits to allow certain prisoners early release.
The New York Times in an editorial criticizes Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA), who the newspaper says “for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data … has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences.” He called the bills “lenient and, frankly, dangerous,” and raised the specter of high-level drug traffickers spilling onto the streets. The bill that appears to have the best chance of passing is one from Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that would give a narrow group of inmates the chance to participate in educational and other programs in exchange for earlier release. Grassley may support what the Times calls that “incomplete” bill. The newspaper expresses hope that “the newer generation of lawmakers, Republican and Democratic, are more creative and forward-looking, and have drawn many of their lessons from successes they have seen at the state level.”