Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol announcing a bipartisan effort to reform the criminal justice system, Oct. 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. 
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

Criminal justice reform bill receives polite applause from left and right

Both conservative and liberal criminal justice reform advocates are cautiously praising a bipartisan group of senators Thursday for legislation aimed at reforming the country’s bloated prison system.

Advocates say that the proposal is a welcome “first step” but that much more is needed.

“America is ready and desperately needs a massive overhaul of its criminal justice laws and policies, and Congress has decided to finally show up to the party,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said.

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The legislation unveiled Thursday aims to reduce recidivism, release elderly prisoners, and limit solitary confinement of juveniles. It also reduces some mandatory minimum sentences, which have put people with low level drug offenses in prison for decades or even for life.

“I think we’re getting somewhere” with this legislation Vermont Democrat Sen. Pat Leahy said at a news conference on Capitol Hill Thursday.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said, “It goes a long way and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

With more than 2.3 million people incarcerated at a cost of $80 billion per year, the proposal comes amid bipartisan support to change the system. The tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and ’90s has seen an explosion in prison populations and a decline in public support for those policies. A coalition consisting of conservative and liberal organizations, including one that includes Koch Industries and FreedomWorks on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left, came together earlier this year to address the issue.

Mark Holden, an attorney for wealthy entrepreneurs and conservative activists Charles and David Koch, said that he is pleased that the senators were able to come to an agreement in the factious environment engulfing Washington. But he said a lot more needs to be done.

Holden said the bill will help to “remove barriers for the least advantaged” who are much more likely to get swallowed up in the criminal justice system.

Holden says the Senate proposal is missing some key components he says are necessary for reform, including reform to ensure that criminal intent is proven before someone could be sentenced, a threshold that advocates say no longer has much bearing in a case.

“It’s not like we’re in the end zone and can spike the ball, but we’ve started a drive,” Holden said.

Another conservative longtime advocate for criminal justice reform agrees. He says it is missing a lot of critical elements. He called the section pertaining to mandatory minimums “a mess” because it reduces it for some crimes and increases mandatory sentencing for others.

Liberal groups especially are working to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, saying each case should be handled on its merits.

But to win the support of the head of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a tough-on-crime proponent, the bill is more modest than many advocates and senators would have liked.

Pat Nolan, a former California legislature who spent two years in prison and came out an advocate for criminal justice reform, said the Senate bill “tinkers here and there.”

Holden mostly agreed but said, “What do they say? You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometime you might get what you need.”

A similar but more comprehensive bill called the Safe Justice Act is sitting in the House waiting to pass the Judiciary Committee.