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The federal prison system is broken. Meet the House Republican determined to fix it.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), on the left, is leading the SAFE Justice Act in the US House of Representatives.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), on the left, is leading the SAFE Justice Act in the US House of Representatives.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

There's something very rare going on in Congress: A bipartisan bill is slowly, but surely, working through the legislative process with a real chance of passing — and it could have a big impact on the federal prison system.

The bill is the SAFE Justice Act, which would narrow who mandatory minimum sentences apply to, allow judges to sentence people to probation instead of prison in more cases, and let prisoners reduce their sentences by participating in rehabilitative programs. Some of the benefits would apply to nonviolent drug offenders. But anyone can get time off a prison sentence by proving rehabilitation, and the bill provides some monitoring and counseling services to violent offenders once they get out of prison by renewing the Second Chance Act.

The bill is a big deal — touted by criminal justice reformers as their chance to shrink overcrowded and expensive federal prisons, and change a federal criminal justice system built on a war on drugs that many people now see as far too punitive and costly. (Although it does little for state prisons, which housed more than 86 percent of the US prison population in 2013.)

I spoke to Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin — the Republican sponsor of the bill, along with Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia — by phone about what he thinks are the most important provisions, and why he supports it. What follows are some of the most insightful parts of the interview.

Why a Republican like Sensenbrenner is sponsoring the SAFE Justice Act

"This is a cost-cutting measure. But we use the costs that are saved by having fewer people in federal prisons to be able to prevent people from going to prison or going back to prison.

"I look at the societal impact where you have a lot of families where dad's not home because he's incarcerated, and that ends up having social consequences that will never be in the Bureau of Prisons budget. But it's going to be addressed in some other way that comes out of some other budget account, whether it's the federal budget, state budget, or local budget.

"That's why organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Koch brothers are in favor of this. It really is the odd couple when you have the Koch brothers and the ACLU supporting the same piece of legislation — it means that it's probably got some merit to it, and we both sides are looking at this as a way to deal with a problem that has been festering and gotten worse as time has gone on."

Why Sensenbrenner became the leading Republican on criminal justice issues in the House

"I'm looking for things that work. And the Justice Department in this bill is required to give Congress data so we can review what's working and what isn't working. If things are not working, we can make changes to try to get them to work.

"One of the things with my time in Congress is that my legacy will be viewed on bills that I have helped enact into law, rather than a 40-second sound bite that everybody forgets about as soon as they go to the refrigerator to get another beer."

What Sensenbrenner thinks the federal government's role should be in fighting crime

"I think that there are far too many federal crimes — particularly those that were a result of administrative regulations, and not voted on by Congress. One of the things we've done is forced review of administrative regulations that have criminal penalties. That's in the bill. I imagine there will be far fewer of them once the Congress is done doing that review.

"There are also some things that are federal crimes that should really be dealt with at the state and local level. I use the example of carjacking. There's no reason why we got to get the FBI and a US attorney involved in carjacking cases when that is [done] far better and more efficiently by a local police department and state or local prosecutors. The FBI has better things to do than track down carjackers."

How the bill could change before becoming law

"I'm open to any changes, whether they come from the White House or any place else, with two reprisals. One, it has to be evidence-based. This is something where we don't deal with emotion; we deal with evidence. There's plenty of evidence from what has happened at the state level with the provisions in the SAFE Justice Act. Two, it isn't anything that antagonizes Republicans, and ends up having the SAFE Justice Act not be something that is completely bipartisan."

Why Sensenbrenner is optimistic about the bill passing

"I'm always worried about what happens in the Senate. I had all kinds of problems with the Senate when it came to the Freedom Act — another one of my efforts in which I successfully put together a bipartisan coalition. But that ended up being enacted into law, and I started out with fewer people supporting me on that than I had supporting the SAFE Justice Act."

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