The possibility of bipartisan congressional criminal justice reform gained new life on Wednesday after similar legislation stalled more than a year ago.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act on Wednesday.
Text of the bill mirrors the bill introduced last Congress that failed after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to bring it up.
"Our justice system demands consequences for those who choose to run afoul of the law, and law enforcement works hard to keep our communities safe," Grassley said in a statement. "This bipartisan compromise ensures that these consequences fit their crimes by targeting violent and career criminals who prey on the innocent while giving nonviolent offenders with minimal criminal histories a better chance to become productive members of society."
"This bill strikes the right balance of improving public safety and ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system," he added. "It is the product of much thoughtful deliberation, and we will continue to welcome input from stakeholders as we move forward."
Grassley and Durbin said two weeks ago they had planned to reintroduce the bill, but hadn't said when they would introduce it.
The legislation would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent repeat drug offenders, and eliminate the three-strike mandatory life in prison provision that critics said dramatically increased the nation's prison population.
Criminal justice reform was a focus of the Obama administration, but has hardly been touched in 2017 by a Republican-controlled House, Senate and White House. The Grassley/Durbin legislation will undoubtedly run into some trouble with the Trump administration.
Reforms to mandatory minimum sentences bump heads directly with the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who voted against the legislation when he was a senator part of the Senate Judiciary Committee a few years ago.
In May, Sessions issued a sweeping new Justice Department policy change that ordered all federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious readily probable charges, some of which carried mandatory minimums. The move was hailed as an effort by Sessions to crack down on drug use and violent crime in order to bolster public safety.
Mark Holden, counsel at Koch Industries, told the Washington Examiner that there's "a real chance for comprehensive criminal justice reforms."
Holden pointed to Monday's introduction of new legislation that if passed would mandate all federal criminal laws take into account whether the person accused of committing the crime did so with intent — known as "mens rea."
That legislation, from Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, David Purdue, R-Ga., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would set a default intent standard for all criminal laws and regulations that lack such a standard.
"Mens rea" is Latin for "guilty mind," and refers to the mental state of a defendant. Where it applies, mens rea requires prosecutors to show defendants knew their conduct was a violation of the law before they can be charged.
Mens rea legislation is often opposed by Democrats, who argue such an across-the-board intent standard would make it more difficult to go after white-collar or corporate crime offenders. However, the new legislation — the Mens Rea Reform Act — had support of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Federal Defenders of New York.
Mens rea helped to derail bipartisan criminal justice reform in 2016 in the Senate. That legislation, also called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, had support from Republicans and Democrats alike. Former President Barack Obama had said he would have signed the legislation had it come to his desk.