The Senate Judiciary Committee approved another significant cost-savings criminal justice proposal March 6 when it reported a bill that would allow lower-risk inmates to participate in programs aimed at earlier transfer to pre-release custody arrangements such as house arrest and halfway houses.
S. 1675, a compromise bill developed by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), garnered a 15-2 committee vote after several months of negotiation. The bill includes provisions from both the original S. 1675, sponsored by Whitehouse, and S. 1783, introduced by Cornyn.
While both of the earlier versions would have allowed the early release of prisoners after participation in anti-recidivism programs, the version approved by the committee includes the provisions from the Cornyn bill that would allow only transfers to another level of custody. The bill would direct the Justice Department to divide prisoners into three tiers depending on their recidivism risk; only those with low- or moderate-risk ratings would be allowed to participate in the programs. Possible activities include vocational training, educational programs, and substance abuse recovery efforts.
The committee’s action on S. 1695 followed approval Jan. 30 of S. 1410, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). That bill, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act, would reduce federal mandatory sentencing levels for certain drug offenders, apply the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, and expand the federal safety valve to allow judges more discretion in determining sentences for non-violent drug offenders. The bill also would create, however, new mandatory minimum sentences for various abuse crimes, interstate domestic violence crimes, and provision of weapons to terrorists or aid in the development of weapons of mass destruction.
Durbin and Whitehouse indicated that they believe the two bills complement each other and could be combined for passage by the full Senate.
The ABA, which opposes mandatory minimum sentencing, supports provisions in S. 1410 that would reduce lengthy sentences for persons who committed non-violent offenses, but the association has not addressed the specific provisions in S. 1675.