GOP pushes jus­tice re­form in KY, but Mc­Connell hes­i­tant in US Se­nate

Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY DANIEL DESROCHERS AND LES­LEY CLARK

From Sen. Rand Paul to Gover­nor Matt Bevin to law­mak­ers at the state and lo­cal level, Ken­tucky Repub­li­cans have joined Democrats in mak­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form a key com­po­nent of their leg­isla­tive agenda.

But, at the fed­eral level at least, it seems a Ken­tucky Repub­li­can is the only thing stand­ing in the way.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell is star­ing down a bi­par­ti­san coali­tion of sen­a­tors and in­ter­est groups push­ing for a fed­eral crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form bill called the First Step Act.

If the mea­sure be­comes law, it would boost re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams for pris­on­ers fin­ish­ing their sen­tences, give judges greater dis­cre­tion when sen­tenc­ing non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers, par­tic­u­larly for drug of­fenses, and im­prove liv­ing con­di­tions for women in prison.

It would also lower the “three strikes” penalty that calls for of­fend­ers to face life in prison after a third crime. The life sen­tence would be re­duced to 25 years, and the type of of­fend­ers who could re­ceive the penalty would be re­duced.

“I think there’s wide­spread sup­port within the party for it and I think that’s be­cause Repub­li­cans know it’s the right thing to do,” said Tres Watson, the spokesman for the

Repub­li­can Party of Ken­tucky.

The ef­fort has in­cluded a full court press in Ken­tucky from Paul and his wife, Kel­ley Paul, who has cham­pi­oned the ef­fort for months. Both made TV and ra­dio ap­pear­ances this week, hop­ing to con­vince Mc­Connell to put the mea­sure up for a vote.

Mc­Connell, who in Oc­to­ber said that if sup­port­ers wran­gled enough votes the cham­ber would find time to take up the bill, last week ex­pressed doubt that the Se­nate would have the time.

He said that after the Se­nate de­ter­mines how much sup­port there is for the leg­is­la­tion, it would have to be weighed against the Se­nate’s other pri­or­i­ties, which in­clude fund­ing the govern­ment and pass­ing the farm bill -- a pri­or­ity for Mc­Connell.

“We don’t have a whole lot of time left,” he warned.

Pro­po­nents of the bill see it dif­fer­ently.

“There is plenty of time for this bill,” said Holly Har­ris the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Jus­tice Ac­tion Net­work. “Plenty of time. What is chal­leng­ing is this is sort of a rel­a­tively new is­sue for him, but I be­lieve he is go­ing to un­der­stand the pol­icy value of crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, but also the po­lit­i­cal value.”

Paul es­ti­mated the bill would get 65 to 70 votes in the Se­nate on “Face the Na­tion” Sun­day and said it would be “one of the most pop­u­lar things to ever pass.”

Mc­Connell does not want to bring any leg­is­la­tion to the floor that won’t pass and con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans, chiefly Rep. Tom Cot­ton, RArk., have vo­cif­er­ously op­posed the mea­sure.

Cot­ton in a USA To­day col­umn called the bill “just a mis­guided ef­fort to let se­ri­ous felons out of prison.” He faulted the leg­is­la­tion for not crack­ing down on deadly drug traffickers and said it “goes soft on some of the worst crimes — traf­fick­ing heroin and fen­tanyl.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, chal­lenged Cot­ton via Twit­ter this week, ac­cus­ing him of spread­ing “fake news” about the leg­is­la­tion.

Kel­ley Paul said she had hoped to spend the week of Thanks­giv­ing re­lax­ing and pre­par­ing to host 17 peo­ple at the fam­ily’s home in Bowl­ing Green. In­stead, she’s been mak­ing the rounds on tele­vi­sion shows, try­ing to whip up pub­lic sup­port for the bill.

“I re­main hope­ful be­cause this polls through the roof among Ken­tuck­ians,” Kel­ley

Paul said, re­fer­ring to an Au­gust poll com­mis­sioned by the Jus­tice Ac­tion Net­work that found that 70 per­cent of Ken­tuck­ians wanted Mc­Connell to sup­port the mea­sure. She said she be­lieves sup­port has been build­ing as the drug cri­sis has wors­ened.

“This is an is­sue that peo­ple do care about, es­pe­cially with the drug cri­sis,” she said.

“We’re all see­ing it dec­i­mat­ing whole com­mu­ni­ties and lock­ing peo­ple up for decades has not solved our drug prob­lems, they’ve only got­ten worse.”

The drug cri­sis has led to over­crowded prisons in Ken­tucky and law­mak­ers have at­tempted to take on crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form at the state level as well.

Bevin, who lost to Mc­Connell in the 2014 Repub­li­can pri­mary for Se­nate, has been vo­cal about his sup­port for crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form. He of­ten makes trips to Wash­ing­ton D.C. to talk about the is­sue, in­clud­ing with the pres­i­dent, and has signed ex­ec­u­tive or­ders to help for­mer felons re­turn to the work force.

Sen. Julie Raque

Adams pro­posed a “dig­nity bill” in the Se­nate, SB 133, which was signed into law and pre­vents the state from shack­ling in­mates who are preg­nant.

But sev­eral other pro­vi­sions in her bill, like rais­ing the stan­dard for what crimes are con­sid­ered felonies, were cut out of the bill in or­der for it to pass. A Ken­tucky House bill that made sweep­ing changes to the Ken­tucky jus­tice sys­tem also failed to pass.

“I think peo­ple are scared by the pol­i­tics,” said Rep. Ja­son Nemes, R-Louisville, who cospon­sored the crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form bill in the Ken­tucky House. “I think leg­is­la­tors think our cit­i­zens want them to be what they per­ceive as tough on crime.”

Har­ris, though, thinks it can change. She com­pared the ef­fort to one she made when she worked for the Ken­tucky Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and worked to con­vince Mc­Connell to sup­port Ken­tucky’s in­dus­trial hemp in­dus­try.

“Mc­Connell wasn’t al­ways on board for in­dus­trial hemp; we’ve had to work re­ally hard to get him,” Har­ris said.

Now, a hemp pro­vi­sion in the farm bill has be­come one of Mc­Connell’s top pri­or­i­ties. He’s re­ceived na­tional recog­ni­tion for his sup­port for in­dus­trial hemp, in­clud­ing a write up in Rolling Stone.

“I think this is­sue could be ex­actly the same thing for him,” Har­ris said.

BRUCE SCHREINER As­so­ci­ated Press

Gov. Matt Bevin has signed an or­der re­mov­ing the box that asks about crim­i­nal records from state jobs ap­pli­ca­tions but has been much slower to re­store vot­ing rights to felons who have served their sen­tences.

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