Nonviolent drug offenders could be eligible for shorter prison sentences under legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, in an initial step to change the federal criminal justice system, the Associated Press reports. On a vote of 15-5, the committee approved a bill to give judges discretion to give lesser sentences than federal mandatory minimums in some cases. The measure would eliminate mandatory life terms for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders, reducing minimum sentences for those offenders to 25 years. It also would create programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society. In a rare display of bipartisanship, the legislation is backed by panel chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA), and its senior Democrat, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, are also supporters. The legislation has the backing of the Obama administration and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush. The bill is a compromise. While some Democrats wanted to eliminate mandatory minimums, Republicans like Grassley were concerned that abolishing them could let dangerous criminals go free. Some Republicans said the compromise went too far. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, has argued in favor of current mandatory minimums, saying they have worked. Five Republicans voted no: Sessions, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, and Georgia Sen. David Perdue. Cruz, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, opposed the bill because he said it could lead to the release of some violent criminals.