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Senators who authored a criminal justice overhaul are preparing several key changes to their bill aimed at mollifying conservative critics.
In recent weeks, a handful of Senate Republicans — led primarily by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — have argued that the criminal justice reform bill would allow thousands of felons convicted of violent crimes to be released early from prison. Supporters say that’s an unfair characterization, but now they are making changes meant to eliminate any chance that those criticisms could become reality.
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One change involves Section 105 of the bill, which reduced enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for so-called “armed career criminals.”
Under the original proposal, certain felons who already had three violent felony or serious drug offense convictions, and were found guilty of possessing a firearm would face a 10-year enhanced mandatory minimum — lowered from the current 15-year minimum sentence.
But the bill’s authors are planning to get rid of this section altogether so that the higher, 15-year sentence remains intact, a senior GOP aide said Monday. The aide added that this section was the subject of the most complaints from conservatives.
The second major change is to Section 104 of the bill. That section reduces enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for felons convicted of possessing a firearm while committing a drug crime or a violent offense, such as robbery. Those changes could be applied retroactively for current inmates.
Now, the new version would specifically bar people convicted of firearm possession alongside a violent crime from being able to retroactively seek a reduced sentence. Those changes would “substantively” lower the number of current prisoners who could be released early, the aide said.
“We have changed the bill to directly address those concerns and ensure that violent offenders will not benefit from relief under any of the provisions in the retroactive provisions,” the senior Republican aide said.
The changes are expected to be rolled out later this week with the support of all initial GOP and Democratic backers of the criminal justice reform measure — a bill that’s been eyed as one of the few bipartisan accomplishments that could get done in Washington during a polarized election year.
The legislation was introduced last fall with the backing of a diverse Senate coalition that includes Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Republican and Democrat on the Judiciary Committee; the two chief vote-counters of each party, GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Dick Durbin of Illinois; conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and liberals including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), aware of the divisions in his conference on the criminal justice measure, has so far declined to say whether he’ll put the bill on the floor this year.
Grassley and Durbin urged a bit of caution on Monday, indicating that some of the changes are “still being determined.” The senators acknowledged that some lawmakers have “well-documented concerns” with the bill.
“We’re working to find a path forward that addresses some of those concerns while maintaining both the core principles and significance of the bill and the broad bipartisan support that the bill has already garnered,” Grassley and Durbin, the lead authors on the criminal justice bill, said Monday evening. “How those changes will look is still being determined, but we’re moving ahead to get a bill ready to be considered on the Senate floor.”