The congressional push to overhaul the criminal-justice system took a major step forward on Thursday with the introduction of Senate legislation that has the backing of key leaders in both parties.
The bipartisan proposal would reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences, and limit them to serious drug felonies and violent crimes. It would ban solitary confinement for juveniles and allow them to apply for parole after a maximum of 20 years, and it would grant judges more flexibility in doling out sentences for a range of crimes. The bill would also bolster re-entry programs in federal prisons aimed at reducing recidivism.
Senators have been negotiating a reform measure for months, and advocates said they were surprised both by the scope of the bill and by the impressive array of support lined up behind it. “It’s more comprehensive than what a lot of people had thought,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a coalition that represents groups spanning the political divide, including the ACLU and Center for American Progress on the left and FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform on the right.
The Senate proposal still does not go as far as a bipartisan House bill introduced earlier this year, but with backing from a much more powerful coalition of lawmakers, it stands a better chance of serving as the basis for legislation that could ultimately get signed into law. Standing together at a celebratory press conference on Thursday was Senator John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, as well as two out of the three leading Democrats, Senators Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer. They were joined by both African American members of the Senate—Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Tim Scott. Perhaps most crucially, the coalition also included the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who had helped write into law the decades-old sentencing guidelines that lawmakers are now trying to undo. Until a few months ago, Grassley had been openly critical of the bipartisan effort to scrap them.