POLITICS

Bill To Abolish Some Mandatory Prison Sentences Is Revived In Senate

02/11/2015 07:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

By Julia Edwards

WASHINGTON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Several U.S. senators from far-reaching ends of the political spectrum, including some with presidential aspirations, will reintroduce on Thursday a bill to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders.

The bill would allow federal judges to use their discretion to sentence low-level, non-violent drug offenders instead of having to assign sentences based on the established minimum.

Though an identical bill failed to pass the Senate last year, its sponsors hope the continued push for criminal justice reform by those who will likely shape the 2016 presidential debate can get it passed this time.

"We've got another year behind us and with that we've had additional opportunities to message and more people have become aware of it," said Republican Senator Mike Lee, who is sponsoring the bill along with Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, both possible contenders for the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama laid out criminal justice reforms as one of his priorities in his State of the Union address in January and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder supports the bill.

By lowering sentences, the bill, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act, aims to reduce spending on federal prisons, which are consuming one-third of the Justice Department's annual budget while crime rates in the United States are declining.

Charles Grassley, Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee where the bill would have to pass first, has opposed the bill, crediting tough incarceration policies for the drop in crime rates.

A more modest bill sponsored by Senators John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse to reduce sentences for prisoners who show good behavior while incarcerated may gain more traction.

Lee said he is not ruling out the option of combining the bills. (Reporting by Julia Edwards)

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