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Senators Lee, Booker Push For Stalled Federal Sentencing Reform Bill

Sen. Mike Lee/Instagram
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, talk criminal justice reform during a forum hosted by Google on Dec. 1 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is one of a handful of legislators backing a sweeping criminal justice reform bill in Congress. But with a new administration comes concerns over the bill’s future, which Lee and others would still like to see passed.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill that would overhaul the federal prison sentencing system.
It would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for those with drug convictions, give federal judges more discretion in sentencing and offer more rehabilitation programs to prisoners.


The legislation attracted numerous co-sponsors from across the political spectrum, including Lee, a Republican, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat.


Both men attended a criminal justice forum hosted by Google in Washington, D.C. on Thursday to talk about it. And Lee says he still thinks the bill has a shot.


“I think it’s not only possible, I think it’s an imperative,” says Lee. “In other words, because there’s such a morally compelling reason to do this, we have to make sure that it happens.”


Lee says this doesn’t necessarily mean the legislation will remain in its current form, but he thinks there is enough room for compromise.


Like so many other things in Congress, the bill has languished during this lame-duck session. It’s even faced resistance from more conservative members of the Senate, like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who say it would lead to the release of dangerous felons.


Booker says these fears are unfounded. He says there are currently people serving more punitive sentences for possession of crack cocaine than the law requires.


“Now there are people rotting in prison, watching people who did the same crime or worse come in and out of prison, and they’re stuck there,” Booker says. “Their very existence casts a shame over the values of our country.”


The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Booker argues this has perpetuated a culture of criminality, with more money being diverted to prisons than treatment.


Both Booker and Lee hope the bill, called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, will have its day on the Senate floor next session.


[View full Google Summit on Justice Reform below. Conversation between Sen. Lee and Sen. Booker begins at 53 minutes.]

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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