Bipartisan sentencing reform bill to be introduced in the Senate today

Don’t look now, but the Senate might be about to commit an act of governing.

According to the Associated Press, a bipartisan group of Senators is set to introduce a bill today that would give judges discretion to give sentences below mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders and allow some current prisoners to reduce their sentences through rehabilitation.

The deal was reached between some of the Senate’s most diehard partisans on both sides of the aisle, bringing together Chuck Schumer and John Cornyn; Cory Booker and Mike Lee; Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham; Pat Leahy and Chuck Grassley. And with good reason: there are liberal and conservative cases to be made that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent (usually drug-related) offenses are nonsensical and counterproductive. As the AP reported:

The package was years in the making, the result of negotiations among some of the most powerful members of the Senate. Among their goals: make the sentencing system more fair, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs.

Since 1980, the federal prison population has exploded, in part because of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

Mandatory minimums, in particular have been a particular focus of criminal justice reform advocates for quite some time. As John Oliver breaks down here, they make absolutely no sense:

Which is why the Obama administration issued guidelines for reduced mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders in 2013. President Obama has since called for ending mandatory minimum sentencing entirely.

It’ll be interesting to see if the bill is able to cobble together a coalition of enough Democrats and Republicans to get it over the line. Assuming there aren’t any thorny riders (a big assumption, but still), one would expect the libertarian wing of the Republican caucus to support the general framework of this sentencing reform package as proposed, as would most Democrats. That should be enough to get 50 or even 60 votes.

Granted, sentencing reform is one small piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle. But it’s an important one. And in today’s Senate, having enough votes to take action on any issue of substance is nothing short of amazing.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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