Bipartisan reform bill aims to fix minimum mandatory sentences

Republicans and Democrats unveiled joint legislation, years in the making, to cut the number of inmates in federal prisons. If passed, it would end the so-called "three strikes rule" for non-violent offenders and allow for more education and jobs programs, among other reforms. Judy Woodruff talks to Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, two main architects of the bill.

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    Now we turn to this country's mass incarceration problem, and our ongoing series Broken Justice on efforts to reform it.

    In a rare moment of bipartisan unity on Capitol Hill today, Republicans and Democrats together unveiled joint legislation to cut down the number of people locked up in federal prisons, half of whom are drug offenders.

    Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley announced the deal, flanked by top senators in both parties.

    SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: We are here today because of a lot of hard work and a strong desire by those of us here to make the Senate work. This is truly a landmark piece of legislation. It's the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation. It's a product of a very thoughtful bipartisan deliberation by the Congress.


    The deal was years in the making. If passed, it would end the so-called three strikes rule for life sentences for nonviolent offenders, expand mandatory minimum sentences for some terrorism-related crimes, allow for more education and jobs programs inside prison, and limit solitary confinement for juveniles.

    We're joined now by two of the main architects of the bill, Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

    And we welcome you both.

    Senator Lee, to you first.

    What are the most important ways you would say this legislation changes our criminal justice system?

    SEN. MIKE LEE (R), Utah: You know, I look forward to passing this legislation because it fixes some problems with our minimum mandatory sentencing system.

    We have got some of our sentences — some of the sentences prescribed by federal law are plainly excessive in relation to the severity of the crime. This is resulting in our putting away a lot of people, a lot of sons, and fathers, and uncles and nephews and brothers, away for years, sometimes decades at a time, for offenses that, in many cases, don't warrant that kind of lengthy incarceration.

    This doesn't eliminate minimum mandatory sentences, but it does reform them in a very necessary and long overdue way.


    Senator Booker, what would you add to that? What are the most important changes here? And I know that you have for a long time been involved on dealing with what we call the front end of the criminal justice system.

    SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), New Jersey: Right.

    Well, look, first of all, the great thing about this legislation is, it's recognized by people on all parts of the political spectrum how our broken our system is, when we have had, since 1980, an 800 percent increase in our federal prison population.

    So this really begins to unwind that in a pretty significant way, returning a lot of discretion to judges, making sure that we unwind some of those aspects of mandatory minimums that you talked about.

    But even as exciting is what happens to folks that are already behind the bar, their ability to, through good behavior, through engaging in programs and education, to really earn time down and be released.

    In addition to that, just very expensive things. People don't realize how expensive it is to hold elderly people who have been on these 40-, 50-year sentences and now are very old or very ill, the expense of the taxpayer. This is saying, wait, these folks pose very little risk. It's something called compassionate release.

    And then, for me, just as this moral nation that we are, to have the aspects of this for juveniles, from the solitary confinement provision, to the understanding that if you do something dumb in your teenage years, by the time you're Mike and my's age decades later, it shouldn't be still limiting your economic potential, as we know it does, because people have to confess that for job interviews. It affects your ability to get loans and all of that.

    So, in its totality, this comprehensive bill is going to be steps in the right direction after years of going the wrong way with criminal justice.


    Senator Lee, is there one part of this that you think is going to particularly make a big difference?


    I think one of the parts that a lot of people are celebrating is the fact that we make retroactive a law passed that was several years ago by Congress, one reducing the disparity — the crack to powder cocaine disparity from 100-1 down to 18-1. We make that retroactive.

    That coupled with the expansion of the existing safety valve provision and the creation of a new safety valve provision will give more judges more discretion in more cases. Where the criminal penalty attached to a particular crime seems excessive, the judge will have some discretion, in the case of nonviolent drug felonies.


    Senator Lee, just staying with you, I know that members of both political parties have come together on this, but this is at the very time when a number of the Republican candidates for president are talking about getting the tougher on crime.

    I'm thinking particularly of Donald Trump. How do you explain that?


    Well, this bill is tough on crime. It's tough on crime by getting smarter on crime. And this is one of the reasons why I'm so pleased that we're able to join hands together, as Republicans and Democrats.

    This is a very bipartisan piece of legislation. We recognize this is one of these issues, Judy, that's neither Republican nor Democratic, it's liberal nor conservative. This is simply an American issue. We can get better at fighting crime when we devote our resources in a way that makes them more effective and efficient.


    And let me just add to that, I watched the debates. I saw Rand Paul and Chris Christie and others talk about treatment, talk about sentencing reform, bail reform.

    This is nothing new. And Republicans actually, if you look at the governors, Republican governors, have been leading in some ways, Republican governor of Georgia, for example, doing a lot of things already that we're now doing in this legislation.

    So, this is not a Republican or Democratic issue. I'm sorry. My allies on this have been everybody from the Koch brothers to Grover Norquist. This has really been a remarkable coming together of right or left to end things that are absurd.

    If you just heard what Mike Lee said about this idea that you could have done the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing — those rules were changed, so people that were violating those laws could be in and out, but because they violated them recently, they're in and out, but somebody who violated them a while ago was still sitting in prison.

    So, the absurdities in the system that are costing taxpayers a quarter-of-a-trillion dollars a year paying for a broken system, when we know, both of us know we need to make those investments in law enforcement, in counterterrorism, in building roads and bridges.

    This is a time — a bill that can be celebrated from all sectors of our society, whether you're a liberal or conservative. This is a time for celebrating smart government that's going to be making sure we keep us safer. And everybody up there, I think, that spoke today talked about this is a bill that is going to make us safer as a country.


    Senator Lee, we know that, even though — if this bill passes, it only is going to affect 10 percent of individuals in prison, the 10 percent who are in federal prison. You still have another two million individuals who are in state prisons and jails. What about them?


    OK, so, Judy, this is part of an effort that's being replicated in many states across the country.

    There are a lot of states, including my own state of Utah, that are experimenting with criminal justice reforms. This is part of that same trend. And so we expect this will be replicated in many states, according to the different needs of each state in their own system.

    And while it's true that this represents only a portion of the federal inmates, to those inmates that are affected by this, this is going to make a big difference. It will make all the difference in the world to them, to their families and to their communities, especially for those who will be able to rejoin their communities and start contributing.


    And, finally, Senator Booker even though you have clearly got, as we said, bipartisan support, isn't this still going to be tough going into an election year to get this passed?


    Well, I think that we have real great allies. We have the Democratic whip and the Republican whip. We have the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. And we really have a Congress now controlled in both houses by Republicans that want to show that they can get things done.

    And with this kind of leadership in the Republican Party on this team, I think this is something that has a better chance than many of the efforts that are going on in Congress right now. And, again, it's not novel. There's a lot of these innovations going on in states ranging from Texas to Mississippi to New Jersey to California, so I think that gives us a greater degree of hope.


    Senator Cory Booker, Senator Mike Lee, gentlemen, we thank you both.


    Thank you very much.


    Thank you, Judy.

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