The bipartisan effort Obama left out of the State of the Union

President Obama put forward a modest agenda in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but he left out one goal that Congress could actually achieve this year, even amid election-year politics: criminal justice reform.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday will meet to consider, and possibly merge, three criminal justice reform bills that already have support from tea partiers like Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and liberals like Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. The effort has attracted lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who are interested in reforming unfair sentencing laws and cut the Justice Department’s growing prison spending.

Federal prisons hold nearly 10 times the number of inmates as they did in 1980, the Urban Institute noted in a study last year. On the current trajectory, they could account for more than 30 percent of the Justice Department's budget by 2020.

The three bills being considered Thursday pursue similar policy changes:  The Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would give judges more flexibility in sentencing federal crimes where a mandatory minimum punishment is considered unnecessary.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Durbin and Lee, would similarly give judges more discretion in sentencing. It would also allow certain inmates sentenced under old crack cocaine sentencing laws to petition for reduced sentences consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act -- a 2010 law that lessened the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Lastly, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, introduced by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, creates incentives like reduced prison time for inmates to participate in programs that promote sobriety and reduce recidivism.

“We're all working together to try to get something that not only makes sense, but can pass,” Leahy, speaking for the Judiciary Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday during which Attorney General Eric Holder testified.

“The old one-size-fits-all -- we've realized, one, it doesn't make us safer,” Leahy said with respect to strict sentencing laws. “Two, it doesn't deter crime. But, three, it means we're spending a huge amount of money on things that don't make us better, and has taken money away from good law enforcement that we need.”

In the tea party response to the State of the Union address, Lee made a point of remarking that he and other tea partiers like Paul “are working with some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress to reform the federal criminal-justice system – to help keep violent predators behind bars while creating opportunities for reformed, non-violent offenders to return to the families and neighborhoods that so desperately need them.”

While Mr. Obama didn’t mention these efforts in his State of the Union address, his administration clearly supports them. In a video message published online last week, Holder urged Congress to pass reforms like the Smarter Sentencing Act.

These reforms, Holder said, would advance the Justice Department’s goals by “fundamentally improving policies that exacerbate, rather than alleviate, key criminal justice challenges. And such legislation could ultimately save our country billions of dollars in prison costs while keeping us safe.”

The legislative efforts, Holder noted, would advance initiatives he unilaterally started last year, when he announced a change in Justice Department policy to avoid draconian mandatory minimum sentencing rules. The department now charges low-level, non-violent drug offenders with with offenses that don’t impose mandatory minimum sentences.

Update: Three Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee joined with all 10 of the committee's Democrats Thursday to approve an amended version of the Smarter Sentencing Act, reporting it out to the full Senate. 

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