House Lawmakers Unveil Crime Reform Bill

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By Lance J. Rogers

Oct. 8 — Just one week after a bipartisan coalition of senators rolled out a criminal justice reform initiative, the House Judiciary Committee at an Oct. 8 press conference unveiled companion legislation to the sentencing reform portions of the Senate package.

“Criminal justice reform is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue—it's an American issue,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told reporters.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), saluted the House bill and announced that his committee will be holding a hearing on S. 2123—the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015—once Congress returns from a recess.

Parallel Tracks

The House Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 mirrors the Senate bill by eliminating harsh mandatory life sentences for certain nonviolent recidivist offenders and by broadening the existing “safety valve” for those convicted of low-level drug crimes, Goodlatte said.

It also gives judges more sentencing discretion and makes retroactive the provision of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which eliminated the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenses.

There are some notable differences in the House version, however.

In her remarks, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) stressed that, unlike its Senate counterpart, the House proposal “does not contain any new mandatory minimums.”

“Locking up people for decades and decades doesn't work,” she said.

“These reforms will help over 6,000 inmates, about 85 percent of whom are black,” Lee added.

Fentanyl-Laced Heroin

Goodlatte emphasized that the House bill doesn't roll back harsh sentences for everyone. “The bill contains important limitations to ensure that serious violent criminals serve the full time for their crimes in prison,” he said.

He also spotlighted the bill's proposed sentencing enhancement for anyone convicted of trafficking in fentanyl, a painkiller that he said is “80-100 times more potent than morphine.”

Street dealers these days are cutting heroin with this powerful narcotic and the resulting cocktail has resulted in a surge of overdose deaths, he said.

The Washington press conference was broadcast on Goodlatte’s Facebook page.

More to Come

Goodlatte said the Sentencing Reform Act is just the first piece of legislation in a series of proposals that his committee will be releasing in the coming weeks.

“We have been working for months to identify solutions on issues such as over-criminalization, sentencing reform, prison and reentry reform, improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform,” Goodlatte said.

Both Goodlatte and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, tracked the start of this initiative back to the work done by the committee's Over-Criminalization Task Force, which was formed in 2013.

“The task force sparked and motivated us to look at this issue more closely,” Conyers told reporters.

Other members of the committee who spoke at the press conference included Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Mike Bishop (R-Mich.) and Judy Chu (D.-Calif.).

To contact the reporter on this story: Lance J. Rogers in Washington at lrogers@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

The proposed Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 can be found at http://judiciary.house.gov/_cache/files/76a79b1b-90ad-4c83-9b1c-3c4291102aef/sentencing-reform-act-section-by-section.pdf.


The House Sentencing Reform Act of 2015:

• Reduces the mandatory life without parole sentence for a third drug or violent felony down to a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison;

• Reduces the mandatory minimum 20-year term for a second drug or violent felony offense to a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison;

• Makes the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive;

• Broadens the “safety valve” exception, making certain nonviolent drug offenders eligible for below-mandatory minimum terms; and

• Reduces the 25- and 15-mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes committed while possessing a firearm.