On Criminal Justice, House Tries to Move Forward as Senate Stalls

The House Judiciary Committee will consider prison-reform legislation this week.

Sen. Tom Cotton has raised questions about bipartisan criminal-justice-reform legislation.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Feb. 9, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.

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