Drug sentencing reform measure moves ahead in U.S. House

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2015 5:50 PM

By Julia Harte

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Efforts to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain federal drug offenses advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday with committee approval of a bipartisan bill that will head to the full House for consideration.

Like the Senate version, approved at the committee level in September, the House bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for two- and three-strike non-violent offenders.

Advocates of such reforms, which appear to be gaining traction in Congress, say it would be more just and reduce prison overcrowding. The chairmen of the Senate and House judiciary committee back the bills, improving the chances.

Opponents say lowering mandatory minimum sentences reduces their deterrent effect against future crime.

Federal inmates' average time spent in prison reached 37.5 years in 2012, twice as much as in 1988, with the average time served by drug offenders rising 150 percent over the period, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study released Wednesday.

Many of the provisions in the House and Senate sentencing bills would be retroactive, so some inmates now serving time could see their sentences reduced.

House bill Republican sponsor Representative Bob Goodlatte, said retroactivity would not apply to offenders who served 13 months or more in prison for a prior serious violent felony.

The Senate bill includes prison reforms, while the House version does not affect offenders post-sentencing.

Mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking cases that involve heroin or fentanyl, a type of counterfeit heroin, would be expanded by a consecutive term of up to five years in prison under the House measure, but not the Senate version.

The Senate bill, but not the House version, would establish new mandatory minimum sentences for certain interstate domestic violence offenses.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that supports even more extensive reduced sentences, said those new mandatory minimums will likely subject many people, especially minorities, to "harsh, expensive, one-size-fits-all sentences" in a statement posted on its website the day before the House committee vote.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alan Crosby)