A bipartisan push to reduce the number of low-level drug offenders in federal prisons is gaining momentum in Congress, but proposals may disappoint advocates hoping to slash the mandatory minimum sentences that are seen as chiefly responsible for prison overcrowding, says the Los Angeles Times. The Senate Judiciary Committee is nearing completion of a compromise bill that, like a House bill from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), would change the way drug offenders are sentenced and provide a pathway to early release for those already in prison. Under both proposals, thousands serving long terms because of a disparity in cocaine laws would be eligible to apply for immediate release. Many more drug offenders would be eligible for early release if they completed education and drug treatment programs. Some advocates are disappointed at the approach to mandatory minimums emerging in the Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) has dug in his heels against the sweeping changes approved by the committee when it was controlled by Democrats last year.
The committee had voted to cut 10-year mandatory minimums for drug offenses in half and five-year mandatories to two, but the bill failed. “I don’t think we need to stick with what we did 30 years ago, but those sentences cut down on crime quite a bit,” Grassley told the Times. He outlined what one senator called an “arcane, complex” approach being developed at his insistence that would seek to match mandatory minimum sentences to the particular circumstances of each crime or combination of crimes. “Grassley does not want to be rolled on this,” said one senator. Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said the Grassley approach was shortsighted and would continue to take discretion out of the hands of judges. She prefers the Sensenbrenner-Scott approach because it would greatly narrow the number of offenses eligible for mandatory minimums and would cut mandatory life sentences for drug crimes to 35 years.