Nonviolent drug offenders could be eligible for shorter prison sentences under legislation a Senate committee is considering.

Inmate in jail (David Silverman, Getty Images)

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to approve legislation on Thursday that would give judges discretion to give lesser sentences than federal mandatory minimums in some cases. The measure would eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders, reducing minimum sentences for those offenders to 25 years. It also would create programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the legislation is backed by some of the most powerful senators, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and the senior Democrat on the panel, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, are also supporters.

The aims of the bill are to make the sentencing system fairer, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs. The federal prison population has exploded since 1980, in part because of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

"It's just the moral thing to do," Grassley said. "Inmates will be able to return to society earlier and become productive, law-abiding citizens."

The legislation also has the backing of the Obama administration and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush.

The bill would require eligible inmates to undergo regular assessments to determine the likelihood of their committing another crime. Inmates deemed to be a low risk for a repeat offense could see their prison sentences shortened by 10 days for every 30 days they participate in a rehabilitation program. These inmates could serve the last part of their sentences in community-based programs in which they would be supervised by authorities.

The bill comes as disparate voices -- from President Barack Obama and the ACLU to the conservative Koch Industries -- agree the current system is broken. In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

House lawmakers introduced similar legislation to reduce some mandatory minimums this month. It is less comprehensive than the Senate bill, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte has said his panel plans to introduce additional bills.


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