After years of Capitol Hill talk about repealing laws that require mandatory minimum prison sentences, the fatal shooting of five policemen in Dallas has inspired consideration of creating new federal crimes that would force judges to impose stiff sanctions.
The Back the Blue Act, offered Wednesday by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, would make killing a federal judge, federal law enforcement officer or a “federally funded public safety officer” punishable by a minimum of 30 years in prison.
Unsuccessful attempts to kill would carry a 10-year minimum.
But the legislation also would federalize and establish mandatory minimums for the much more common offense of assaulting an officer.
About one in 10 American law enforcement officers are assaulted annually, according to federal data compiled by the FBI — a vastly larger share than are murdered.
While 41 American law enforcement officers were “feloniously killed in 2015 — down from 51 in 2014 — more than 48,000 officers were allegedly assaulted in 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
The bill comes as public sympathy for police is high after years of controversial killings of civilians. President Barack Obama on Tuesday praised the profession during a Dallas memorial service, and it’s unclear objecting to the bill would be popular.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., are the bill’s original cosponsors.
If it passes, the bill may create a confusing legal landscape, with prosecutorial decisions based on existing state laws, which vary widely. In Virginia, assaulting an officer carries a a six month minimum sentence. In West Virginia, the minimum is 24 hours.
Assaulting a federal officer already is a federal crime punishable by up to eight years in prison or 20 years if a weapon or injury is involved. And it’s vigorously enforced, though within a smaller pool — 1,410 cases in 2014, in which 170 officer were injured and several hundred people convicted.
A South Dakota man in March was sentenced to 13 months in prison under the existing statute, which also bans resisting arrest, after shaking a pepper spray canister that he did not discharge before himself being pepper-sprayed. Also in March, a Nebraska man was sentenced to two years in federal prison for spitting on an officer.
The Cornyn bill’s definition of a “federally funded State or local law enforcement officer” covered by the assault provisions includes police, jailers and probation or parole officers who work in an agency “that receives Federal financial assistance.” That’s a long list, with the federal government pumping billions of dollars a year to state and local police forces.
Though the precise wording could cause confusion about whether it does apply to local departments that receive federal funding, a Cornyn aide confirms that is the intention.
The bill would make assaults on federally funded officers that result in “bodily injury” eligible for a two-year mandatory minimum sentence.
The definition of “bodily injury” broadly includes “a cut,” “physical pain” or “any other injury to the body, no matter how temporary.”
In recent years, abouta third of officers who said they were assaulted reported an injury — much more common among local or state police than assaulted federal officers. Conceivably, the expansive federal definition of bodily injury could enhance the share of arrestees eligible for a minimum sentence.
“You could see why a senator from Texas would feel inspired to do something, but it’s very clear now mandatory minimums are not the way to go,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project.
“These assault pieces are very vague and could potentially bring in thousands of more people who are in an altercation with a police officer and give them a little scratch on their arm,” she says. “We want everyone to go peacefully under arrest, but we know that doesn’t happen. It’s naturally a complicated situation.”
Under the bill, causing an officer substantial bodily injury — requiring a “temporary but substantial disfigurement” or “temporary but substantial loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member, organ, or mental faculty” — would carry a five-year mandatory minimum.
Serious bodily injury — requiring more significant injury such as those causing “extreme physical pain” — would bring a 10 years minimum. Using a “deadly or dangerous weapon” as part of an assault would require 20 years minimum.
The bill would cap prison time for assaults that do not inflict bodily injury at one year.
Sponsors touted the legislation Wednesday as a way to discourage attacks on police.
“This bill better protects our nation’s finest by providing stronger tools for the prosecution of those who would harm law enforcement,” Cruz said in a statement.
“The Back the Blue Act sends a clear message that our criminal justice system simply will not tolerate those who viciously and deliberately target our law enforcement,” Cornyn said.
But Nellis says she hopes members of Congress will consider potential downsides. Killing police officers or judges is “already very illegal” and “we don’t need a new law about that,” Nellis says, while the assault provisions could unnecessarily add to the prison population.
“One of the issues with mandatory minimums is their arbitrary nature — they don’t give any attention to particulars or the case or discretion to judges,” she says. “They end up bringing people into the system who otherwise wouldn’t be there and keeping them far longer than needed.”
This article originally appeared on MSN.