U.S. House panel to address criminal justice reform piece by piece

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 10, 2015 12:21 PM

By Julia Edwards

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After nationwide protests against police and years of debate over sentencing guidelines, the U.S. House of Representatives' top judicial lawmaker plans to consider criminal justice reforms piece by piece, rather than as a single, broad reform package.

Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte announced on Wednesday that the House Judiciary Committee will hear ideas from members and then potentially weigh bills on topics such as easing long sentences for non-violent drug offenders, excessive criminal penalties and reforming some police practices.

The approach may disappoint some advocates who have said Congress is past due on passing a broad reform package and worry that a piecemeal approach may not lower mandatory minimum sentences.

Mandatory minimums currently dictate how many years a drug offender must serve based on the quantity of drugs possessed.

"Mandatory minimums don't work as advertised and the time to fix them is now," said Mike Riggs, a spokesman for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington policy advocate group.

Goodlatte has not said publicly where he stands on the issue.

The Justice Department and some lawmakers argue that mandatory minimums lead to overcrowded prisons and overly harsh penalties for people who pose no threat to society.

But some federal prosecutors have said reductions in sentencing would erode investigators' power to convince low-level drug offenders to hand over information on those higher up the chain.

Tensions between minorities and police represent another flashpoint to be addressed. They have been laid bare by altercations, some deadly, between unarmed black men and police over the past year and ensuing protests.

Increased attention to the issue has united some political foes. Conservatives point to the fiscal savings of lowering the prison population while Democrats argue high sentences fall disproportionately on minorities.

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White House adviser Valerie Jarrett recently held a discussion on it with lawyers for conservative campaign financiers Charles and David Koch, an Obama administration official said.

In the Senate, conservative Mike Lee and long-serving Democrat Dick Durbin introduced a bill to reduce mandatory-minimum sentences. But so far such bills have stopped short of coming to the floor for a vote.

Goodlatte is betting that his approach will be more fruitful. "The goal of the committee's initiative is to produce strong, bipartisan legislation," Goodlatte and the committee's ranking member John Conyers said in a joint statement.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Christian Plumb and Andrew Hay)