The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, drew bipartisan support for cutting penalties on crack cocaine offenses. The bill reduced a disparity between crack-related sentences and sentences for other drugs, though it only addressed new cases, not old ones.
Durbin, one of that bill’s chief sponsors, has written a much broader bill with Lee, called the Smarter Sentencing Act. It would expand a provision that gives judges discretion for a limited number of nonviolent drug offenders. The new law would allow judges the same latitude for a larger group of drug offenders facing mandatory sentences.
It’s one of four bills dealing with sentencing that the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up early in the year. The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he wants one consensus bill to clear the committee.
Leahy is a co-sponsor on the Durbin-Lee bill but has also introduced legislation with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would expand the safety valve even more, to all federal cases with mandatory sentences if certain conditions are met.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation late in December that is based on changes in Texas’ state prison system.
A separate bill, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, allows inmates to earn credit for completing programs designed to reduce recidivism.
Leahy’s committee delayed writing a sentencing bill several times in 2013. But supporters noted that the last sentencing legislation took months to negotiate and said that the committee has delayed work until early 2014 in large part because behind-the-scenes talks are proving fruitful.
Durbin said he and Lee had been lobbying their fellow committee members — Durbin talking to skeptical Democrats, Lee to Republicans.
In the House, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party conservative, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., are co-sponsors of a companion to Durbin and Lee’s bill.