Pressure builds for prison reform in lame-duck session
Sentencing changes divide Senate GOP
Pressure is building on Senate Republican leaders to approve major reductions to federal criminal sentences before the end of the year, though some key lawmakers in the party say they are not eager to reward criminals with less prison time.
All sides agree on some changes, such as promoting the use of halfway houses, expanding the prison industries program and boosting in-prison mentoring. But things get more complicated when sentencing changes for drug offenders are added.
President Trump is pressing Republicans to take action this year, and the American Civil Liberties Union is running ads in Kentucky demanding that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell schedule the legislation for a floor vote.
Mr. McConnell said that he will go where the votes are within the Republican Party.
“We will be whipping that to see whether — what the consensus is — if there is a consensus in our conference about not only the substance, but the timing of moving forward with that particular piece of legislation,” Mr. McConnell told reporters.
Congress is scheduled to be in session until mid-December, and the next week and a half is likely to be dominated by action on spending bills to keep the government afloat for fiscal 2019.
With a farm bill also on the must-do list, as well as confirming Trump judicial nominees, there is a narrow window for action on other legislation.
Mr. Trump said this week that he thinks the support is there, and he will convey that to Mr. McConnell.
“We’re talking to him, and we’re doing a [vote] count,” the president said. “But from everything that we’re looking at right now, we have more than enough. So, at a certain point, we’ll have a talk.”
Speaking in Biloxi, Mississippi, at a forum with state and federal leaders last Monday, the president said the proposal would help former inmates re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.
“Communities will be safer by helping inmates gain the skills that they need to obtain jobs and stay out of prison after they are released,” he said.
The House has passed the prison reform piece of the legislation, known as the First Step Act. A version of that bill also has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But it’s the push by many lawmakers to add sentencing changes that is complicating matters, at least within the Republican Party.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, brokered a compromise deal that would cut some mandatory minimum sentences for federal inmates.
Mr. Grassley said support from Mr. Trump, who has built a reputation as a law-and-order president, is crucial to getting the bill approved.
Republicans including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are also on board.
But a key group of conservatives remains opposed.
“My central concern is that we should not be releasing violent criminals,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, told The Washington Times.
“I fully support reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, but for me, I draw the line at violence, so I am working with the bill sponsors to try to make sure violent criminals are not included.”
Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, said he can get behind the bill’s prison measures but wants to tackle the sentencing changes separately.
“If we don’t do this right, the First Step Act is going to be the ‘First Step in it Act,’ and we need to take our time on this. The bill changed dramatically. There needs to be a hearing,” he said.
The bill would allow judges to sentence below mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent drug offenders and reward time credits to low-risk prisoners who participate in recidivism reduction programs.
“There is no question that this is going to allow fentanyl traffickers to get out early,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Here we are breaking our necks to try to stop the opioid abuse and we are going to let these people out early.”
The legislation also would eliminate enhanced sentencing for an individual with a first-time offense who carries a firearm and instead apply enhanced mandatory sentences to offenders who did time for prior violent crime or drug offenses.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, is also not a fan of rushing through the bill.
In an op-ed for USA Today last month, he wrote that considering a criminal justice overhaul during a lame-duck session is a “misguided effort to let serious felons out of prison.”
But advocates for an overhaul such as Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center Justice Program, say the sentencing measures added to the bill are modest.