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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