WASHINGTON — A House Democrat-led push to repeal mandatory minimum sentences has run aground on concerns among some liberals about setting up a far more punitive system.
The bill, backed by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., fell short Tuesday of the support it needed for the bill to advance.
While Lee said she’d still continue to press for passage, opponents argued it could be catastrophic to already-strapped corrections budgets.
Lee and 27 co-sponsors introduced the so-called “Shortened Sentencing Act” in January as a bipartisan response to former President Barack Obama’s push to end mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
The bill would allow judges to sentence certain drug offenders, whose crimes occurred prior to 2010, to up to five years’ probation instead of mandatory imprisonment.
The prospect of repeal drew criticism from Democratic critics, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who argued that about half the state sentences for drug crimes were handed down prior to that date.
She also said restoring some of those sentences could make it harder to enforce laws aimed at deterring violence, and said a Democratic-controlled House could codify the law’s rollback “where we have discretion in following the Constitution.”
The bill would apply to multiple types of drug offenders, including those with a drug history, those convicted of repeat drug crimes or operating vehicles equipped with illegal controlled substances. It does not apply to certain violent offenses or repeat offenses.
Other supporters of mandatory minimums cited sentencing disparities against black men as an argument against repealing them. Lee rejected those arguments, saying they “don’t hold water in 2018.”
The House was expected to vote on the bill Tuesday after passing a comparable bill in the Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The committee rejected an amendment that would have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, but it did clear the bill out of committee with little controversy.
It was not clear what strategy Republican leaders would use to try to advance the bill. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., one of the bill’s leading proponents, said Tuesday that Republicans would be “willing to work with Democrats to go forward.”
Three others co-sponsors voted against the bill Tuesday: Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill.
Lee argued that if Democrats fail to adopt a policy reform in the wake of the midterm elections, they “will leave a huge void.” She predicted that the bill would still become law.
“We have to look at the history here. We don’t ever wave the white flag,” Lee said. “I don’t give up.”