WASHINGTON – New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is part of a broad coalition of lawmakers introducing a sweeping criminal justice reform package this morning, hoping to cut mandatory minimum sentences, better prepare inmates for life after prison time and improve the chances for those leaving incarceration.
"After years of the justice system being broken, we're announcing a solid step forward toward reform," Booker, a Democrat, said in an interview ahead of a 10 a.m. news conference. He called the bill, negotiated with Democrats and Republicans, "a number of really good strides on a much longer journey."
Criminal justice reform has been Booker's top priority since joining the Senate. At a press conference with four other Democrats and four Republicans, he said that even though it's not senatorial he wished he could hug the rest of the group on stage.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), called Booker "the conscience" of the effort, citing his "heartfelt" speeches to his Democratic colleagues.
The measure has a chance to be one of the very few major pieces of legislation that becomes law in a bitterly divided political atmosphere. It has backing from across the political spectrum, including liberals who have pushed to ease penalties and help those in prison get a second chance and conservatives who want to cut the costs of incarceration and see a moral impetus for helping people who can be rehabilitated. The effort has been pushed by the conservative mega-donor Koch brothers, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and the White House.
The Senate bill introduced Thursday cuts mandatory sentences for some crimes, including lower-level drug and gun offenses. Life sentences under the "three-strikes law" would drop to 25 years; 20 year mandatory sentences to 15. For crimes that require 10-year sentences, judges would have more discretion to assign shorter terms.
For those lawmakers who have stressed law-and-order, some new crimes and circumstances would be covered by mandatory sentences. (For example: state-level crimes would now be counted against a convict as part of the mandatory minimum criteria, even if the person had no prior federal convictions).
Schumer compared the effort to craft the bill, and satisfy all sides, to solving a Rubik's cube.
Republicans, for example, refused to lower 10-year minimum sentences to five or five years to two, as Booker and others originally sought. And they insisted on the provisions to expand minimums to more categories.
Booker had to accept some limits on his push to have juvenile records expunged or sealed -- a move he said would help people convicted when they are young get a second chance as adults. Juveniles tried as adults or who were convicted of domestic violence won't be eligible. That last compromise, he said, was sealed by a handshake on the Senate floor with Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) Wednesday.
The bill includes prison programs to rehabilitate inmates and new limits on placing juveniles in solitary confinement.
The plan would affect only federal prisons, where the population has grown by 800 percent since the 1980's, Booker said, but which account for just 10 percent of the U.S. prison population.
He hoped the federal law would spur reform at the state level.
Booker has been an outspoken advocate and salesman, promoting the effort at speaking engagements, on the Senate floor, and interviews with local, regional and national outlets – sometimes alongside far more conservative senators who are also behind the plan.
Later Thursday, he planned to promote the bill alongside the tea party-aligned Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).