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Trump 'fixer' Michael Cohen gets three years, and Trump calls him a liar. Also on the Thursday rundown: Higher smoking rates cause some states to fall in health rankings; and the Farm Bill helps wilderness areas.

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A New Shot at Justice? Congress Examines Sentencing Reform

Congress is considering legislation that would give judges more freedom to get around drug sentencing laws first passed in the 1980s and 90s. (OpenRoadPR/Pixabay)
Congress is considering legislation that would give judges more freedom to get around drug sentencing laws first passed in the 1980s and 90s. (OpenRoadPR/Pixabay)
December 6, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS – People languishing in federal prison for decades on nonviolent drug convictions may get a new chance at justice if the U.S. Senate finds the political will to pass sentencing reform in the final weeks of the lame duck session.

Groups on both left and right on the political spectrum support the First Step Act, a series of measures to give judges more freedom to get around harsh sentencing laws first passed in the 1980s and 90s.

Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives with the advocacy group The Sentencing Project, says the bill would take the existing reforms that fixed the gulf between sentences for trafficking crack versus powder cocaine, and make them retroactive.

"It would impact about 2,600 people who are still in prison,” she states. “It would give them an opportunity to petition to a judge for re-sentencing."

President Donald Trump has expressed support for the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to schedule a vote.

The U.S. has 2.6 million people behind bars right now, but these reforms would only affect the 181,000 in federal prisons.

The First Step Act would also add a "safety valve" that lets judges get around mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug cases.

Gotsch explains many states are taking sentencing reform into their own hands.

"States across the country have passed mandatory minimum sentencing reform and seen impressive results – of not only reducing their prison population, but also seeing a reduction in crime – because it allows government and communities to reinvest their dollars in other ways that help to protect and secure communities," she points out.

Indiana passed a criminal justice reform measure in 2014 that reduced penalties for many low-level crimes related to drug possession, but some experts believe it's still too early to fully evaluate their effectiveness.

According to the latest data from The Sentencing Project, in 2016 Indiana had the 16th largest state prison population in the country.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IN