The House will probably take a step forward on criminal-justice reform Thursday. Across Capitol Hill, advocates of overhauling sentencing and prison policy are struggling to avoid moving backward.
With criminal justice viewed as one of the only topics potentially ripe for a bipartisan deal this election year, the House Judiciary Committee will mark up the bipartisan “Recidivism Risk Reduction Act.”
The bill to reform the “back end” of the prison system provides incentives, including transfer to prerelease custody, to federal inmates who take part in programs designed to cut their risk of reoffending.
It’s the latest of several bills on the march in the House, where Speaker Paul Ryan hopes to bring criminal-justice-reform legislation to the floor. But House GOP leadership has yet to announce any plans.
A companion Senate effort has hit rough waters in recent weeks over portions that address sentencing policy, or the “front end” of the system.
And now advocates hope that action in the House could help encourage Senate Republicans to smooth over their disputes regarding provisions that curtail harsh “mandatory minimum” sentences for some drug and firearms-possession offenses.
GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, a cosponsor of the main Senate bill, told National Journal that action in the House would “give more people an incentive to read the bill, understand what it does, and I think the more educated people get, the more comfortable they are going to be with it.”
But achieving broad agreement in Senate GOP ranks—a likely precondition for Majority leader Mitch McConnell to put anything on the floor—is proving tough.
Differences burst into public view on Tuesday as a number of GOP senators, including the aggressive freshman Tom Cotton, on Tuesday ramped up their opposition to the bill.
Cotton and three other Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee—Sens. Jeff Sessions, David Perdue, and Orrin Hatch—posted criticisms on the publishing platform Medium. Cotton called the bill a “massive social experiment in criminal leniency” that “threatens to undo the historic drops in crime we have seen over the past generation.”
Cotton also floated new legislation that, according to a summary, would require new federal reporting on crimes committed by inmates who receive reduced sentences, declaring that Americans “deserve to know the level of crime they’ll be bearing as a result of sentence reductions currently implemented and any future sentence reductions passed by Congress.”
But sponsors of the bipartisan Senate bill on Tuesday pushed back against claims that the measure would enable the dangerous release of violent felons.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and GOP Sen. Mike Lee both defended the bill at a Capitol Hill forum Tuesday with several former high-level law enforcement officials hosted by the group Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.
“Our bill recalibrates and rebalances mandatory-minimum sentences so that law enforcement can continue to use those tools to target violent, repeat offenders, while at the same time judges have more discretion for low-level, nonviolent offenders,” Grassley said.
“Our bill doesn’t indiscriminately release dangerous prisoners as some of our colleagues have publicly stated. Independent analysis confirms this,” he said. Lee said there has been “very, very inaccurate” criticism of the measure and that there’s “nothing about this bill that would undermine our nation’s security.”
Amid the public battle over the Senate bill, its sponsors are working behind the scenes to make changes designed to address critics’ allegations that the bill would put a large number of dangerous people back on the street. The legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall with backing from all the panel’s Democrats and six Republicans, while five GOP members voted against it.
“We are trying to find a way to change those sections which have created some resistance, particularly on the Republican side, while not compromising the total number of people that are helped by the bill,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters in the Capitol.
While the bill is facing headwinds, Durbin expressed hope that the changes could bring support from more Republicans.
“I think we can pick up maybe another Republican or two on the committee, if that’s the goal, but I think we have an even greater upside potential on the floor,” he said.
Criminal justice is seen as a rare area of potential dealmaking between the GOP-led Congress and President Obama, who has made the issue a priority.
But the clock is ticking to move legislation this year, especially as the presidential election draws closer. “I am becoming increasingly concerned we may just not have enough time to get something that has that level of controversy done,” Tillis said.