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US Senate Working to Cut Sentences, Lower Prison Population


FILE - Inmates are seen exercising in the main yard at the California State Prison in Vacaville, California, May 20, 2015.

FILE - Inmates are seen exercising in the main yard at the California State Prison in Vacaville, California, May 20, 2015.

As an assistant U.S. attorney in 2004, Republican Senator Mike Lee knew a young father who sold marijuana three times over 72 hours.

"He happened to have a gun on his person at the time. As it turned out, the way our mandatory minimum sentencing laws overlapped and were applied to that case produced a 55-year minimum mandatory sentence,” he said.

Lee said that case is why his priority when he arrived in the Senate was the reduction of minimum mandatory sentencing laws.

He stood with a bipartisan group of senators Thursday to announce an agreement on a criminal justice reform bill. The effort brought together crime conservative Republicans and liberal democrats who wanted to scale back sentences even more.

U.S. leads way

The bipartisan bill reduces mandatory minimum drug sentences that were handed down in an era when a "tough on crime" stance resulted in a surge in the prison population. Those mandatory minimums were joined by a law called "three strikes, you're out" which mandated life sentences without parole for a third felony involving drugs. Since then, prison populations in the U.S. have skyrocketed.

The United States now incarcerates more criminals than any other country in the world. According to the World Prison Brief by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, the U.S. tops the list with 2,217,000 inmates, followed by China with 1,657,812 and Russia with 649,500.

A prison exterior. A bipartisan group of senators recently announced an agreement on a criminal justice reform bill. (Carolyn Presutti/VOA News)

A prison exterior. A bipartisan group of senators recently announced an agreement on a criminal justice reform bill. (Carolyn Presutti/VOA News)

Democratic Senator Cory Booker demonstrated his passion about the reform bill, saying if it were senatorial protocol, he would hug all the senators who were standing behind him.

“This bill is for me, a moment where, after decades of our country moving in the wrong direction, after decades of seeing our federal prison population explode 800 percent, we have gotten our criminal justice system - with this piece of legislation - moving this country forward,” he said.

Working off time on the inside

The bill addresses rehabilitation, giving inmates an opportunity to work off sentencing amounts through specific programs.

Senator Dick Durbin says the bill gives judges more discretion in handing down sentences. The Democratic Whip says it increases opportunities for those currently in prison, to give them the tools to better adjust to society when they are released.

"We believe that there are people who are incarcerated today for lengthy sentences at great expense, who frankly should not be in those prisons," he said. "We think resources spent on those incarcerations are better spent on good law enforcement in our communities, in good work by prosecutors and good work in our criminal justice system to prevent crime.”

Juvenile reforms

The bill allows for juvenile records to be removed after sentences are served and limits solitary confinement for those young offenders.

Julie Stewart leads the non-profit group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She started FAMM in 1991 after her brother received a mandatory five years without parole for a first offense of growing marijuana.

“This bill isn’t the full repeal of mandatory minimum sentences we ultimately need, but it is a substantial improvement over the status quo and will fix some of the worst injustices created by federal mandatory sentences,” she said.

Bipartisanship at its best

Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called it a "landmark piece of legislation - the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation, it’s the product of a very thoughtful bipartisan deliberation by the Congress. There are things in here that each of us likes. There are items that each of us would rather do without."

The senators say their bipartisan handprint on the bill is proof it will pass in the Senate. But, they gave no prediction of what will happen to it in the House of Representatives.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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