Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are reintroducing a prison reform bill they say will achieve a major goal of criminal justice reformers: reducing the size of the federal inmate population.
Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pushed the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act at a press conference Tuesday.
The law is meant to reduce the number of people — currently just over 210,000 — incarcerated in federal prisons.
The package proposed by the two senators takes a more moderate approach to reducing prison populations than other proposals that would implement reductions to mandatory sentences.
It also supports programs that help prisoners avoid returning to crime after being released.
Prisoners would undergo a risk assessment to determine whether they present a low, medium or high risk of committing another offense.
Prisoners determined to have a low or medium risk of offending again would be eligible to earn time off of their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs, including drug counseling or vocational training, a release from Whitehouse’s office said.
In total, prisoners can earn 25 percent of their sentence off through the law.
The bill, though, prevents certain types of prisoners, like those serving time for sex offenses or terrorism, from benefiting from the law.
"We want to go forward with what's passable without subjecting the bill to the kind of Willie Horton-type critique that it might receive,” Whitehouse said of the decision not to have the law cover some types of prisoners.
Willie Horton was a felon who committed rape after being released on a furlough from a Massachusetts prison; his case was used against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election.
Cornyn and Whitehouse said they are open to debating additional measures, including changing the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
But they touted their measure as a good starting point for a larger conversation about criminal justice.
“This is a debate that we welcome,” Cornyn said when asked whether sentencing reform could conceivably be added to the bill.
“There's a lot of things we can do to improve our criminal justice system, and there's a lot of it being discussed. Things like mandatory minimums, sentencing reform, over criminalization, particularly of the regulatory environment. There are a lot of things we can do better.”
"Given the new open amendment process in the United States Senate, anybody who's got a good idea and 60 votes — 59 plus theirs — can offer it by way of an amendment," he added.
Whitehouse said that having a criminal justice bill moving through the Senate could buoy other ideas for reforming the criminal justice system.
"I think if this bill proves to be a catalyst for further legislation in the area of sentencing reform and criminal justice reform, John and I would have no objection to that,” he said.
Cornyn was not a co-sponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would have made reductions to mandatory minimums and has bipartisan support, in the last Congress. Whitehouse was signed on to the bill.
Proponents of sentencing reform, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), say changing the mandatory minimums would be a powerful way to address both the prison population and inequalities in a justice system that incarcerates people of color at disproportionate rates.
Some, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have been reluctant to support changes to the mandatory sentences. But Grassley recently expressed an openness to having his committee consider the idea in an interview at a conservative event last month.