The Senate Judiciary Committee today approved a sentencing reform bill that would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses and get rid mandatory minimums for drug offenders without a criminal history.

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 now heads to the full Senate with bipartisan support including Democratic sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), as well as Republicans sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

But several Republican senators oppose the bill, and it might need some negotiations to satisfy the reservations of some Democrats that the provisions could reduce the tools prosecutors use to take down gang and drug enterprises.

The bill calls for reducing the mandatory minimums under the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act—from 20 years to 10, from 10 years to five and from five years to two. It does not lower the maximum sentence.

It also eliminates mandatory minimums if the court finds that the criminal-history category for the defendant does not have more than two criminal-history points. The defendant would also need to have no prior convictions for any offense that involves violence, a firearm, a sex offense, terrorism, racketeering or conspiracy to use and invest illicit drug products.

“We are talking about nonviolent drug offenses exclusively that would be affected by this,” said Durbin, who introduced the legislation with Lee and Leahy. The bill now has nine co-sponsors from both parties.

“If you look back, as I have, at the debate on mandatory minimums, the goal was to nail the kingpins and break up these drug cartels,” Durbin said. “What we’ve learned is the laws do not sufficiently separate the big-time career offenders from lower-level offenders.”

Durbin said the sentencing changes in the legislation are unanimously supported by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the U.S. Judicial Conference, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and more than 100 former prosecutors and judges. There is also support from law enforcement, the Council of Prison Locals, civil rights groups, Republican tax watchdog Grover Norquist and the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, Durbin said.

The same bill was filed in the House by Tea Party member Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), and co-sponsored by Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).

Judge Patti Saris, the chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, said in a statement today that the legislation “is an important first step toward addressing rising federal prison costs and a federal prison population that far exceeds capacity.”

The push is part of a broader call among Washington’s politicians—including President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.— to loosen a stringent sentencing framework that sent the Bureau of Prisons on a path to overwhelm the Department of Justice budget.

The changes in the bill would save the Department of Justice $3 billion over 10 years, according a November report by the Urban Institute.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) voted for the bill to pass the committee, but said he has reservations because he has supported mandatory minimum sentences. He said such prison terms have played a role in reducing crime in New York City.

Prosecutors in New York told him that changing lower-end mandatory minimum sentences—five years to two years—could be damaging to prosecutions and crime fighting, Schumer said. The threat of the sentence can prod a low-level mule to testify against higher-ups in a gang or drug ring.

“Many prosecutors are worried they may no longer be able to use this tool effectively,” Schumer said.

Four senators voted against the bill in committee: Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Grassley said the number of people in federal prison for simple drug possession is near zero, and the supposedly nonviolent drug offenders this bill addresses are mostly drug dealers.

“Maybe they used no violence in committing this particular crime,” Grassley said. “But maybe their co-defendant carried a gun in committing this drug offense. Or maybe this drug offender committed violent offenses in the past. That violent past is relevant to the sentence the drug dealer received.”

Grassley added several amendments to the bill to introduce new mandatory minimums for other crimes, such as five years for a sexual assault.

Sessions, describing his opposition to the bill, cited a Jan. 27 letter from the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys that said crime is now half of what it was in the era before mandatory minimum sentences.

“The principal beneficiaries of this massive crime reduction are those who were disproportionately crime victims in the past—minority groups, particularly those in the inner cities,” the letter to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. states. “When crime starts to rise, as it did before mandatory sentence laws and will again if we tear down the statutes that have helped keep us safe—minorities, disproportionately, will be the victims.”

The bill would also allow prisoners sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine, to petition a judge to reduce a prison term that would be shorter if sentenced today.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.