Booker helps lead push for overhaul of U.S. criminal justice system

 U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, is part of a bipartisan group of legislators  pushing for an overhaul of the federal criminal justice system. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, is part of a bipartisan group of legislators pushing for an overhaul of the federal criminal justice system. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is hoping to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, give judges more leeway to mete out prison time, and overhaul other aspects of the country’s criminal justice system.

“For decades, our broken criminal justice system has held our nation back from realizing its full potential,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, a sponsor of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 that was announced Thursday

“Mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately affected communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America,” he said.

One section of the bill does away with mandatory life sentences for nonviolent criminals convicted of a third offense. Some current inmates could have their sentences reduced by as much as 25 percent by taking part in rehabilitation programs, if they are deemed a low risk to offend again.

Excluded from the relaxed penalties are violent offenders, sex offenders, convicted terrorists, and members of organized crime syndicates.

The bill would also limit the solitary confinement of juveniles housed in federal prisons.

Speaking at the Washington Ideas Forum Thursday, Booker said he saw the destructive impact of the criminal justice system on the poor and underprivileged while he was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, which is 80 percent minority.

“We have a criminal justice system that’s so biased, two dramatically different justice systems are experienced by the wealthy and privileged than are experienced by the poor,” he said. “In fact, you get treated better if you’re wealthy and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent at times.”

Since 1980, the federal prison population has exploded, in part because of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In 1980, the federal prison population was under 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

The bill, which was years in the making, is expected to have momentum in the Senate given its bipartisan backing.

Booker said it is a bipartisan solution to a problem created by both parties.

“The rush to increase mandatory minimums was a bipartisan rush,” he said at the Washington Ideas Forum. “Remember Bill Clinton’s ’94 crime bill. Even the Congressional Black Caucus was onboard with a lot of the changes that drove up our federal incarceration rate 800 percent.”

It is unclear how such a proposal would fare in the more polarized House of Representatives.

The White House has not yet commented on the bill.

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