Criminal justice reform faces first hurdle: passing the Senate

  • News outlets and politicos are abuzz over a rare moment of bipartisanship: support for comprehensive criminal justice reform.
    • Highlights of the proposal include giving judges more room to sidestep mandatory minimum sentences, reducing the “three strike” policy’s
      minimum sentence from life to 25 years, and easing drug sentences that lead to African-Americans being incarcerated at disproportionately high rates
    • Even with Trump’s support, the bipartisan consensus is shaky, as prominent lawmakers from both sides have voiced concerns

The prospect of bipartisanship

National news outlets and politicos were abuzz last week about the sudden prospect of Congress passing comprehensive criminal justice reform — and with bipartisan support. News first broke that a bipartisan group of senators had reached a tentative deal on a bill called The First Step Act. This bill would, among other things, give judges more room to sidestep mandatory minimum sentences, reduce the “three strikes” penalty’s minimum sentence from life to 25 years, and ease drug sentences that have led to African-Americans being incarcerated at disproportionately high rates (The New York Times has a more detailed summary here).

Just two days later after the Senate announcement, President Donald J. Trump announced his support for the measure.

“Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption, so if something happens and they make a mistake, they get a second chance at life,” Trump said to reporters at a White House event. “We’re all better off when former inmates can receive and reenter society as law-abiding, productive citizens.”

The time is ripe, it seems, for Washington to act. With nearly 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated, the most per capita in the world, and crime at relatively low levels, politicians in recent years have largely backed away from the “tough-on-crime” rhetoric of previous generations. Perhaps most importantly, both sides have strong ideological incentives to act on the issue: the left with its concerns over systemic racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and the right with concerns over the ballooning costs of prisons, both economically and socially.

Clearing the first hurdle

Does the First Step Act have enough support to pass? It’s unclear whether the package, with its sentencing reform provisions that some Senate Republicans don’t support, would get through the chamber, Politico reported Wednesday. A number of high-profile GOP reformers like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) back the legislation, but other Republicans, most notably Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), call it a “jailbreak” bill.

Meanwhile, across the aisle some prominent liberal Democrats have yet to lend their support to the agreement. As of Wednesday, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who are both thought to be eyeing presidential runs in 2020, had not taken a stance on the bill.

This isn’t deterring Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the lawmakers from their respective parties who have taken the lead on negotiations over the criminal justice package. In a statement Wednesday they hailed Trump’s remarks and referenced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) vow earlier this year to take up the criminal justice deal if he could get at least 60 votes in the Senate.

“With the president’s support and Leader McConnell’s pledge to hold a vote on the broadly popular package, we can quickly take a critical first step towards reforming our criminal justice system,” Grassley and Durbin said.

Image Credit: “Courtroom One Gavel by Joe Gratz/Public Domain.”

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