Criminal justice reform – an agenda item that President Barack Obama has been speaking about more frequently in the wake of the unrest in Baltimore – gained momentum in one very red state this week.
Launching the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Monday in New York, Obama talked about how mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent offender have been particularly tough on minority communities.
"Communities where too many men who could otherwise be leaders, who could provide guidance for young people, who could be good fathers and good neighbors and good fellow citizens, are languishing in prison over minor, nonviolent drug offenses,” Obama said.
The same day, Oklahoma Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill to allow judges to impose shorter sentences for nonviolent offenses, while also sending some offenders to treatment instead of jail.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan Senate bill introduced in February supported by some of the most conservative Republicans and some of the most liberal Democrats is languishing in the U.S. Capitol.
“The president did convene a meeting with Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate in the Cabinet Room to discuss this very issue,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told TheBlaze Wednesday. “This is something the president believes would be important to addressing some concerns about inequities in the way the law is enforced.”
“The president has been gratified that both Democrats and Republicans recognized that this is a priority and that putting in place these kinds of reforms would be good for the country,” Earnest continued. “The president certainly is interested and willing in working with Democrats or Republicans, with anybody on either side of the aisle that understands why this is an important step for our country to take.”
Earnest said he was not aware of the new Oklahoma law.
According to the Daily Oklahoman, the Justice Safety Valve Act takes effect Nov. 1 and allows judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing laws and instead send nonviolent criminals for treatment for mental health or drug abuse problems. Fallin told the newspaper that one in 11 Oklahomans serve time in prison under current law, and that under the new law, violent criminals will continue to be incarcerated.
In February, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durin (D-Ill.) introduced a similar bill for federal prisons called the “Smarter Sentencing Act.” They were joined in their announcement by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Patrick Leahey (D-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). The bill would give federal judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimums specifically on nonviolent drug offenses.
Supporters of the federal bill say there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of federal inmates over the last 30 years, and nearly half are serving sentences for drug offenses. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office estimated changes save taxpayers about $3 billion over 10 years.
However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has argued the tougher sentencing has led to a major drop in crime and that drugs have done more to devastate poor communities than harsh prison sentences. He points out that law enforcement groups such as the the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association oppose the Lee-Durbin bill.