Who Can Stop Criminal Justice Reform Now? Very Few People.

After years of negotiations, a justice reform bill speeds through the Senate.

Associated Press
Lauren Fox
Add to Briefcase
Lauren Fox
Oct. 22, 2015, 1:46 p.m.

Crim­in­al justice re­form is bar­rel­ing through the Sen­ate and there are few forces left to stop it.

The list of sup­port­ers for the bill is long and in­cludes the Chair­man of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chuck Grass­ley and the Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn.

At a mark-up Thursday, the team of sen­at­ors who toiled away on the bill in ob­scur­ity for months stood to­geth­er against a host of amend­ments aimed at re­veal­ing par­tis­an fault­lines in the crim­in­al justice sys­tem. Ul­ti­mately, the com­mit­tee voted 15 to 5 to pass a bi­par­tis­an re­form bill, which now could move for a full vote on the Sen­ate floor.

Op­pos­i­tion to the le­gis­la­tion has been frag­men­ted at best in re­cent months.

Groups like the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of As­sist­ant United States At­tor­neys, the Na­tion­al Im­mig­ra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment Coun­cil, and the FBI Agents As­so­ci­ation have all voiced con­cerns over the bill, but the groups are up against a much great­er force push­ing for re­duc­tions in pris­on over­crowding and pro­grams that pre­pare in­mates for life out­side of pris­on. Even more pro­gress­ive ad­vocacy groups like Fam­il­ies Against Man­dat­ory MIn­im­ums who had once hoped the bill might go fur­ther, have signed on. And, a new co­ali­tion—Law En­force­ment Lead­ers to Re­duce Crime and in­car­cer­a­tion—have thrown their weight be­hind the bill.

Dur­ing the markup, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tender who ul­ti­mately voted against the bill, called for the com­mit­tee to re­move the ret­ro­act­ive act­ive re­forms in the bill that ap­plied to in­mates who com­mit­ted crimes while pos­sess­ing a fire­arm.

“I don’t think what the crim­in­al justice sys­tem needs is ad­di­tion­al le­ni­ency for vi­ol­ent crim­in­als,” Cruz said. “What this bill does is goes pre­cisely back­wards from where we should be go­ing.”

Cruz’s op­pos­i­tion re­vealed a rift between him and fel­low con­ser­vat­ive Mike Lee, who has of­ten been seen as one of Cruz’s closest al­lies, but was a spon­sor of the bill.

Some sen­at­ors op­posed to the bill zer­oed in on the fact that ma­jor U.S. cit­ies—from Bal­timore to Mil­wau­kee—have seen an up­tick in vi­ol­ent crimes mak­ing now the wrong time to pur­sue crim­in­al justice re­form. Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, a con­ser­vat­ive from Alabama, noted the rise in heroin deaths and the sud­den in­crease in vi­ol­ent crime as the reas­on to op­pose it.

“The drive and the pres­sure to move to­ward sen­ten­cing re­form is al­ways there. It is a very se­duct­ive call. It is a siren song some­times,” Ses­sions said. “My ex­per­i­ences is that it is sel­dom ef­fect­ive.”

But the over­whelm­ing sense with­in the com­mit­tee was that the key play­ers were still hold­ing to­geth­er. After years of cob­bling to­geth­er the le­gis­la­tion, mem­bers ushered the bill through its first ma­jor hear­ing and passed it out of com­mit­tee in a single week.

“We can show the Amer­ic­an pub­lic that sen­at­ors are grown ups and we can get things done,” rank­ing Ju­di­ciary mem­ber Sen. Patrick Leahy said about the pro­cess.

And out­side the com­mit­tee, mem­bers are op­tim­ist­ic that the le­gis­la­tion could get a lot of sup­port on the floor if Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is will­ing to bring it for­ward.

“I think we are be­ing reas­on­able at our un­der­stand­ing of what needs to be tweaked so that the sys­tem is fair to the crim­in­al chal­lenges that are out there right now,” said Sen. Richard Burr, a Re­pub­lic­an from North Car­o­lina. “Any bill that has the chair­man on the bill gets my at­ten­tion.

The House could still be a ma­jor place of dis­agree­ment over crim­in­al justice re­form, but the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee is be­gin­ning to roll out its own piece­meal crim­in­al justice re­form agenda and has prom­ised to work along­side the Sen­ate to pass re­form.

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