WASHINGTON – The House Judiciary Committee sent six bills addressing criminal justice reform to the full House on Wednesday, including a bill that would end life imprisonment for people who commit three nonviolent drug crimes. The maximum sentence would be 25 years.
With more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons, mass incarceration has become a growing concern for lawmakers of both parties.
The the committee spent most of its time on H.R. 3713, the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, which gets rid of the mandatory life sentence. It also broadens the application of the existing “safety valve” to give judges more leeway in not imposing the mandatory minimum sentence and applies it retroactively to nonviolent drug offenders.
The bill would add a five-year extension to mandatory minimum sentences for those trafficking heroin cut with fentanyl, a narcotic pain medication that is cheaper than heroin. The drug combo is blamed for “a rash of deaths across the country,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte R -Va., said.
“The Sentencing Reform Act proposes targeted, responsible sentencing reforms,” Goodlatte, said. “It makes common-sense changes to certain federal drug sentences, while helping law enforcement keep violent offenders behind bars and saving taxpayer dollars.”
The bill passed unanimously.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner R-Wis., introduced an amendment that would help prison officials to identify prisoners with mental health needs. It would provide emergency and crisis services, specialized law-enforcement response training, court hearings for alternatives to incarcerations and more appropriate community supervision support services.
“Our jails and federal prison systems have become America’s mental health facilities – a purpose for which they were never intended,” Sensenbrenner said. “However, with proper treatment, which we know costs far less than imprisonment, offenders can be rehabilitated and safely transitioned back into the community.”
The amendment was added to the bill, also with a unanimous vote.
Rep. Ken Buck R-Colo., proposed two amendments to add an exemption for crimes involving heroin from consideration of the bill’s benefits and publish the criminal histories of those who have been released or given reduced sentences on the Department of Justice’s website. He withdrew the proposals almost immediately.
“I don’t want us to move backwards,” Johnson said. “Because of this scourge of heroin that is afflicting suburban neighborhoods, it is now getting the attention that it certainly deserves, but at the same time, we don’t want to go back to mass incarceration for a public health problem.”
Bass said many formerly incarcerated persons, especially women, have a hard time finding employment after they are released and Buck’s proposals could make that worse.
The five other bills sent to the floor are:
- The Criminal Code Improvement Act would help people without criminal intent from being prosecuted
- The Regulatory Reporting Act would require regular reports on federal agency rules with criminal penalties and assess the importance of keeping those rules
- The Clean Up the Code Act would rid several statutes in the U.S. Code that subject violators to criminal penalties, such as misusing the image of Smokey Bear
- The Fix the Footnotes Act addresses errors made by Congress in drafting laws
- H.R. 2831 makes technical amendments to update statutory references to provisions in several chapters of law addressing defense and national security.
“I commit to all the members of the committee, that we’re not don’t yet. That we have more bills to do, in criminal reform, in policing strategies and juvenile justice,” Goodlatte said. “And we are going to move ahead with all due speed to bring those forward to the committee and mark them up and move them to the floor of the House.”
The House is expected to take up the bills after Thanksgiving. The Senate has sent a similar sentencing reform bill to the floor.
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